You wouldn't have guessed he'd shoot himself, but it made sense after the fact. He always meant what he said and did, and he always had the guns around. It was right that he used one to blow his brains out.
I can't remember the last time a celebrity death made me sad like this. I'd been meaning to write a tribute to him, because I consider him a great and underrated writer. Too late now.
Still, it was an honorable and gory end, a good conclusion. He'd already lasted about 40 years longer than he expected to, and much, much longer than the mainstream wanted him to. Ever since he got famous and kept saying openly that he loved and used speed, they'd been waiting eagerly to see him turn into something they could use to scare the kids back to nice, dumb, cell-toxic booze. They were willing to tolerate a discreet stoner—marijuana users are pitifully harmless people—but not a smart, tough, 6'3" redneck who sang the praises of the hard stuff. (In fact, one of my favorite comments he made about drugs was that he could write effectively on every drug EXCEPT marijuana.)
It irked them, the way he refused to die, go dramatically insane, become crippled, or recant. Way back in the 70s people were saying, "Oh, he's through, he's really fried his brain." That was all you ever heard from the millions of cowards who were going through the recommended transition from druggie to real-estate agent: "Oh, Hunter's lost it, I heard he OD'd..."
Well, he hadn't lost it. He kept writing well—better than they could. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the best post-1945 American novel I know, with Dog of the South and Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch its only real competition. Thompson, waxing boastful in his old age, claimed it was as good as Great Gatsby; I say he was being absurdly modest. It's vastly better than that rusting hulk welded of Preppie bathos.
There's Huckleberry Finn, and then there's FALILV. And note that they're very similar books, these two great American novels: both hilarious, both steeped in intimate scorn for the culture they deride, both written by tough Southern boys who were too smart, honorable and cocky to fall for the Southern mythos—or the Northern one.
Thompson took all that was good about the South: personal honor, toughness, gun love, jokes; and abandoned, once and for all, the vile baggage that went with it, without whining about his loss. He backed Ron Dellums for VP in 1972, and never even thought about going back to Dixieland schmaltz when it became fashionable again at the turn of the millennium.
Can anybody else's culture hero say as much? Can Orwell, that oft-cited example of journalistic virtue? Thompson was not only a far better writer than Orwell, he was a far better man. Orwell felt that his conversion to Socialism made it acceptable to him to keep all the other nasty bigotries of his background, and made a point of hating everyone his nanny had taught him to hate, from the Irish to the wogs to women.
Thompson dropped all his childhood prejudices and fought—in many cases, literally, physically fought—racism wherever he came across it. And typically, he never bemoaned his loss of innocence, nor became a mealymouthed "progressive"—an extraordinary bit of navigation through four decades of treacherous ideological snags, a feat worthy of his sole peer, the river pilot Mark Twain.
How many of the abstemious wisps who live on Spirulina and consider coffee a dangerous stimulant wrote as well in their sixties as he did? His columns for the San Francisco Examiner in the 80s were damn good, and his books kept coming, more diffuse but still funny. And he kept refusing to lie.
In one of his last books, Kingdom of Fear, he said the only druggies still honest enough to credit their chemical muses were him and Burroughs. But as with Gatsby, he was too generous. Truth is, he was the only one. Burroughs loved to pose with guns and play up the junkie schtick, but ended up sniveling to be "cured" of his "addiction" and wrote in praise of the medical gurus who weaned him off opiates.
Not Thompson. He never recanted.
We make the Hollywood Commies of the fifties into heroes for refusing to grovel or snitch, but that's only because Commies just don't matter. Try to think of a hero who stood up to the drug-cops and the medieval insanity they unleashed—a hero who never denied using drugs or enjoying them, never denied that they helped him enormously in his work, never backed down, even at the peak of the witch hunt. It's a list of one: Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. That's practical bravery, bravery in the face of real, virulent, popular oppression. Do you see the difference?
67 years old, and he was still going so strong it took a bullet in the head to stop him. A half-century on speed. It's an awesome achievement in itself, never mind the writing.
Yes, speed. I'll say it again, since this crucial word seems to have been left out of every obituary I've read: speed.
All the ex-druggies who run the California press, eager to airbrush the decades spent high on speed and coke from their official biographies, are squirming to find some way to avoid the word. The San Francisco Chronicle even managed to find someone who quoted Thompson as saying, "Adrenaline is our real drug of choice."
Nice try. But let's try to be a little bit honest, guys, just for a few minutes, in his honor. His drug of choice was speed. Crystal meth. Amphetamines. You all know it. You've all taken it. And not one of you will admit that you love it, that you've written on it, that you've had the best times of your life on it.
That was his gimmick: telling the truth. It's something that would never occur to the people who run the San Francisco Chronicle. That's all Thompson's "new journalism" was: telling the truth about what it was like to be a reporter.
Every other American journalist saved his really juicy stuff for the boys in the bus, and fobbed off press releases and other garbage on the sucker readers. They do it instinctively; it literally would not occur to them to go about the job any other way. America is the perfect Soviet society, with a built-in disconnect between what a reporter knows and jokes about while drinking and drugging with other insiders, and what he tells the losers out there.
Thompson was simply brave enough to do the obvious (which was so "obvious" no one else dreamed of doing it): telling us the whole juicy experience of being on the press bus, being one of the insiders.
This is what columnists mean when they say that he became a "Gonzo" journalist and "abandoned objectivity": simply that he told the druggy, boozy, rumor-fuelled truth they all preferred to save for each other. And in doing so, he actually made the filthy, dull slaughterhouse work of American politics seem worth reading about.
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972 is still worth reading, long after all its principal characters are dead. Not for its account of the election, but just to savor the Amphetamine rhythm of Thompson's life on the road, in the bus: the highs, the hotel paranoia moments, the crashes—he tells a speed crash better than anyone except maybe Philip K. Dick.
And there, maybe, is a fit companion for him: Dick. Both were smart and lucky enough to be in the Bay Area just as it took flame, in the mid-60s. Both were a little bit older than the average callow hippie, and that saved them. I recently read Thompson's early letters, collected in The Proud Highway, and was amazed to see how brilliantly he avoided all the pitfalls of the hippie trail. And God, there were a lot of pitfalls. There was the gullible folly of becoming a naive believer in the charismatic dictators of the moment. Thompson stayed a hard Leftist all his life, but mocked, in his letters, friends who swooned at the feet of third-world dictators.
Then there was the lotus-eater slide into drooling hedonism. He was astonishingly deft at avoiding that one, taking his share of sex and stoner idylls without ever losing his hardscrabble drive to keep writing. In fact, you'll find him remarkably terse about sex, compared to any other hippie-era writer. He had more, and boasted less, than any one I can think of.
And most treacherous of all was the shallow, unconcealed pit labeled "Return to Airbrushed Safe Career." He never took that one. It's almost as if...could this be possible?...it's almost as if he WASN'T SCARED. How could there be an American who wasn't scared? Scared is all that we are, it's our DNA. But not his.
One of his last columns described the long sequence of humiliating searches and interrogations he endured before boarding a flight to Hawaii. In a beautiful passage, he remembers fondly how Americans used to be able to go anywhere they wanted, without fear, without explaining themselves to anyone. I don't know if that's really true, but it's wonderful to imagine. Just the idea of an American not being scared—that's wonderful in itself.
But I fear he was the last one.
John Dolan is the author of the novel Pleasant Hell (2005), available through Capricorn Publishing.