A reflection and farewell to Hunter S. Thompson
By MARK CROMER
I suppose it was an appropriate enough setting to get the news, nestled inside a Pomona greasy spoon and lording over my plate of bacon, eggs and sourdough like some vulture ready to gorge on steaming fresh road-splat. In a hyper-connected world, I had spent this past weekend straight Old School—in bed with my girlfriend, on the couch with my girlfriend, in a few bars with my girlfriend, then back in bed. Phones and computer turned off, liver braced for the worst and my cock on high-alert. I had been out of the proverbial loop, the world passing me by, and now I was sipping my coffee and catching up, devouring the above-the-fold copy in the Los Angeles Times. It was the usual bullshit: Messianic Jewish settlers with guns and belief in a Divine Mandate, freakish mob chaos in Iraq and a meaningless photograph of former American frontmen George H. W. Bush and William Jefferson Clinton, side-by-side on the deck of a Navy ship and looking like a pair of golfers fresh from the club house as they toured tsunami-ravaged Indonesia. It was shameful journalistic mediocrity carried out with all the room-temperature aplomb that the Times is known for. The only way that photo should have made A1 is if they had both been sporting gin and tonics and a couple of Djarum cloves, with maybe Clinton triumphantly holding up a lime that he had impaled on the tiny plastic sword that bartenders put in drinks and flashing his trademark “ I Love Pussy” grin.
I was depressed, but still hopeful. The rain was taking names and kicking ass on the gritty streets outside, pummeling a valley filled with enough human flotsam to choke off every storm hole and sewer mouth leading to the sea. Washing these streets clean will take another 40 Days and 40 Nights number from the Big Guy on High, but he just keeps teasing me with trailers of Coming Attractions.
The thunderclap struck when I flipped the paper over to see a familiar face hiding just below the fold, partially obscured by a cigarette poised in that ridiculous holder used only by dead starlets, Thurston Howell and old queers. The tight head n’ shoulders shot was captioned ‘Literary Giant.’ The one-column head next to the photo read ‘Gonzo Journalist Thompson Kills Self.’ I just stared at the paper for a moment, not really reading any further, processing what it meant. What it really, really meant.
Fuck, he’s dead.
Dr. Gonzo apparently offed himself, unceremoniously and without warning. A Sunday night bye-bye carried out not too late to make the Monday morning editions, but late enough to keep the initial details shrouded in mystery, at least in the Times. I made my way into David Kelly’s story of Hunter’s planetary departure, far from reeling, but feeling somewhat gypped with every passing sentence.
I just didn’t get it….where were the other bodies?
Yeah, the Other Ones. Hunter pulling the trigger on his way out the door at the age of 67 was not as much of a shocker as the fact that he evidently didn’t invite some guests along with him for his cruise down the River Styx. There was no gruesome trail of graveyard-cold Greed Heads, Hustlers, Pimps, dollar-addled Power Junkies and all around, standard-issue Shit Heels that populated Hunter’s work. So let me get this straight: the once brilliant provocateur who long-championed the public lynching of land-raping developers, tax-swindling politicos and bureaucratic Stalinists dropped the curtain on his final act without so much as blowing away a few scumbags as he shuffled off the stage? What a pity. The man who delighted in detailing his penchant for blowing earth-killing machines to smithereens on the back forty of his Woody Creek bunker didn’t bother to send Ken Lay and some of his ilk a Theodore Kaczynski love letter? What a shame. Or maybe I should say sham.
The DNA of Hunter’s mythical persona was as much a part of Tyler Durden’s genetics as anything else, but where is the Pay Day?
On the other hand, I had long ago come to terms with being let down by Hunter, or maybe just grew somewhat bored by him as a reader. It had been a long stretch since I first picked up his 1966 masterpiece Hells Angels, an experience that left me convinced good journalism meant more than a dutiful collection of facts and a phony adherence to J-school blather about “objectivity.” Hunter convinced me quick that journalism was equally about telling a good story. Yeah, a really good one. Getting it right was half the work, but making it good was where the heavy lifting came in. I had been fascinated by the Beats rhythmic prose and their clarity of the streets, and enamored by Hemingway’s ability to distill epic tales through succinct lines that rolled off his typewriter with the impact of atomic bombs, and was inspired by Mark Twain’s righteous fury and lacerating wit.
But Hunter seemed a little bit of all of them, at times, and still a little more. He was George Plimpton mixed with Charles Manson and a twist of Joan Didion. I had not read work like his before and, my appetite whetted, I hungered for more. I soaked up his Great Shark Hunt and Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 before finally getting around to Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. Others came later and with less frequency, Generation of Swine, Better Than Sex and The Rum Diaries.
The glamorization of journalism that put the craft on the marquee was the film ‘All The President’s Men,’ which is widely attributed to a spike in J-school applications around the country. But I am confidant the Hunter’s work led thousands of writers into journalism as well, for if Woodward and Bernstein made reporting look like a noble and exciting profession that is vital to the health of the Republic, Hunter’s orgies of sex, dope and rambling screed made it look cool. WoodStein appealed to the Ego that wanted to bag press awards, Hunter appealed to the Id that wanted to get high and laid. Woodward’s lust to be part of the power structure was evident in every talking head spot he did, meanwhile Hunter was hanging out at the Mitchell Brothers’ O’ Farrell Theater in San Francisco, soaking up its infamous Ultra Room. Top that, Bobby.
By his own admission, his so-called ‘gonzo’ style spawned countless young writers who attempted to emulate Hunter, usually crashing and burning in the process. My first short story I hammered out in Low back in 1988 was subtly entitled Fear & Loathing in Pomona. I cringe at the thought of it now and can’t bring myself to read it. Despite the well-intentioned if horrifically executed homage, Hunter influenced me in the most fundamental of ways as a journalist: he inspired me to jump off the beaten path while zeroing in on the kill with Kamikazi-like focus (and zeal). His grenade throwing style was peppered with an oft-overlooked foundation of solid reporting, and that’s what made it so explosive to me.
For me, the payoff was usually found in his earlier work. Hunter’s deconstruction of the killing of reporter Ruben Salazar by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies during the tumultuous summer of 1970 offered some of the best hardball reporting and potent storytelling I’ve ever read, with Thompson bringing his festering cynicism and ability for genius jags of observation into a full head of steam. Hunter hit that story out of the park and I am surprised SIS didn’t get orders to whack the good doctor out.
But that was a long time ago and Hunter became, at least it seemed to me, something of a caricature. The model he built enriched him famously but entombed him as well. Any concern that Hunter was fictionalizing his accounts of drug use and wanton behavior evaporated after hearing the detailed account from my friends Bob Fritz and the late Rob Oostmeyer, both of whom squired Thompson around the Pomona Valley in front of a speaking engagement he had at the university. Hunter proved to be a petulant freak before zonking out on assorted substances and whining incoherently. Fritz and Oost started the night respectful fans but ended it ready to stomp him. The ‘Literary Giant’ came closer than he may ever have known to being found tied naked to a tree, badly beaten and with a shoe stuffed in his bleeding mouth.
But the alchemy of notoriety is an odd brew. A drunk that pisses off your balcony and pukes in your mailbox immediately qualifies for a beating, except when the drunk turns out to be Jim Morrison. Then it becomes a Kodak moment, a story to be told. Hunter got the Morrison treatment from my friends, he was spared pain and terror and they got a story to tell without going to jail.
Aside from being a glorified asshole at times, Hunter’s byline of late, stylistically anyway, seemed as much of a parody to me now as Mick Jagger is still prancing on stage, rolled sock firmly in crotch, flailing about like a rooster on speed as he exaggeratedly mouths ‘I can’t get nooooooo satisfaction.’ A sad curiosity flashing moments of greatness from a bygone time. Even Hunter’s flagship from which he loosed his most deadly broadsides into popular culture, Rolling Stone, has long since sailed into irrelevancy in regard to the youth culture. Hunter was writing for baby boomers in a magazine ostensibly targeting 18 to 25 year olds, railing about the long dark shadow of Dick Nixon to readers who couldn’t tell you who John Mitchell, Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman were to save their lives.
But he kept going through the motions, still hitting the occasional high note.
I had that feeling the last time I read him, in a National Affairs dispatch for the magazine just a few weeks in front of last year’s election. Hunter was convinced that Kerry was going to kick George W.’s ass all over the electoral map. The high-octane verbage and eviscerating adjectives were there in full force, of course, but it just seemed…thinly familiar, like a distant echo the third or fourth time around. And he got it wrong.
And now he is Gone. Shuffling off like Papa, perhaps kneeling down in the sun porch with a double-barreled taxi tucked under his chin. The details will be filled out over many post-mortems to come, polluted by celebrity eulogies from the usual suspects like Sean Penn or, God help us, Johnny Depp.
But thinking about it now, I am taken back to what Hunter wrote for the National Observer in the spring of 1964, in an essay about Hemingway’s move to Ketchum, Idaho:
“ Perhaps he found what he came here for, but the odds are huge that he didn’t. He was an old, sick, and very troubled man, and the illusion of peace and contentment was not enough for him—not even when his friends came up from Cuba and played bullfight with him in the Tram. So finally, and for what he must have thought the best of reasons, he ended it with a shotgun.”
Fuck, Hunter’s gone.
Well, I will pour a few high voltage rounds tonight in his honor, offering a few toasts I hope will make it through the cosmic transom and to the Other Side. I will raise my glass to the writer who in three issues of Rolling Stone better captured the essence of Richard Milhouse Nixon, the original Dr. Evil in American politics, than Bobby Woodward could ever hope to in a thousand editions of the Post.
I will raise my glass to the journalist who gave hope in the profession to the writers who believed in the art and power of story-telling, but chaffed under editors who cracked the whip demanding inverted pyramid schemes of regurgitated swill.
I salute Hunter S. Thompson the writer, the reporter, not some bullshit Furry Freak Brothers cartoon character. I will miss the writer.
And I hope he did it for what he thought were the best of reasons.