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February 22, 2005

Tombstone blues

Posted by Phil on February 22, 2005 6:47 PM

"We are living in very strange times, and they are likely to get a lot stranger before we bottom out." -- HST, 1976

Hunter S. Thompson was my Jack Kerouac. So was Jack Kerouac, of course, and Burroughs and Lester Bangs while we're at it, but Thompson was the one--the heroic lord of the joke, the king of the wild frontier.

I was first exposed to Thompson's style in college, in a letter my friend Tim Peter received, from a friend who was ripping it off. I'd never read and possibly hadn't even heard of Hunter S. Thompson, so I just thought this friend of Tim's must be some kind of comic genius: a world-class partier, wryly, ruefully, helplessly, happily reporting from the depths to which his own id had dragged him. I mean, I knew it was a joke, but what a joke!

I don't remember how or how soon the connection was made that the genuine article was a book called Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I don't remember who told me about it or loaned it to me. But Thompson's writing had everything I wanted: power, scope, intellect, politics, anger, hilarity, certainty--and, of course, drug use on an epic scale. For much of the next 10 years, my friends and I smoked pot, drank whiskey, dropped acid, and read Hunter S. Thompson. As Curt said, "The man writes just what I want to read!"

Well after college, long after I'd littered journals, logs, and long correspondences with my own knowingly shameless rip-offs, I loaned the book to my friend Mark, who'd somehow made his own pot-shrouded journey through a state university without ever being exposed to Thompson. Mark was at best bemused, and maybe even bothered. And Mark isn't stupid, nor any puritan. He knew it was a joke, but what kind of joke?

I couldn't begin to explain it. I mean, it wasn't only funny. Certainly it was in good part a cautionary tale--they weren't gleeful hippies, eyes spinning like pinwheels in a happy bacchanal. The character Thompson made of himself in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a man who believes himself to be at once in supreme control and in the grip of omnipotent forces from within and without. He twists and writhes, terrified, in the tentacles of his appetites, his attorney's appetites, and the colossal, hideous ignorance of the suffocating nightmare-world around him. And yet he is wise to it all and strolls haughtily right through the crowded lobby, master of his fear and therefore his destiny, taking his scam as far as it will go. Like Charlie Chaplin's petrified Little Tramp kicking the fat cop in the ass and then running, that's funny.

And what is his scam? Why, to be his own man to the limits of his ability to conceive of himself, in the face of hostility, stupidity, and indifference. To take the Constitution at its word and live free or die. To lull the bastards by playing the fool, and then stick in the blade. To acknowledge Paranoia and Violence as unavoidable companions. To call cowards, liars, and hypocrites by their names and never deny the limits, consequences, and pathos of such passion and excess. To run with the antelopes and wallow with the boar-hogs and above all to report back: "to cover the story for good or ill."

Yeah, that'll do, and I didn't even have to rip him off too badly to get it said. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 and the collection The Great Shark Hunt are probably the other crucial chunks of his canon; not nearly as fantastical as Las Vegas, but more than compensating with his journalist's eye, instinct, and critique. He didn't change journalism, of course, I suppose because his voice was so singular, and because journalism was on its way to becoming a pit of whores. (Literally, it would seem.) So he was merely one of the great literary stylists of the 20th century, leaving a trail no one could follow. It was remarkable today to skim the blog spectrum and see how many different people were conversant with the cliches and tropes of his style--and how few could resist blowing a few notes. He's insufferably easy to ape. Speaking personally, like sax players after Charlie Parker, like guitar players after Jimi Hendrix, I didn't want to write like anyone else--like myself--and for a long time I didn't. In a lot of ways I still don't.

In the '80s and '90s his talents atrophied, his vices expanded, he started choosing targets that were beneath him, and his style frequently parodied itself, losing its lean, sure velocity. But through a peak that lasted nearly 20 years, Hunter S. Thompson described and defined an era. He was like Twain and Hemingway crossed with John Henry and Pecos Bill. He covered fear and loathing with fearlessness and love, and he produced writing that is more brutal, exhilarating, and fun than anyone else I've ever read.

"The question this year is not whether President Bush is acting more and more like the head of a fascist government but if the American people want it that way. [...] Only losers play fair, and all winners have blood on their hands." -- HST, 2004