The author is remembered more for his persona than for his writing—which is a shame
If you talk to people who knew Hunter S. Thompson, born 74 years ago this week, you are going to hear crazy stories. From Thompson's birth, boyhood, and schooling in Louisville, Kentucky, to a brief stint with the Air Force, even briefer stints with several newspapers and magazines in the early 1960s, the 1966 publication of his first book, Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, until his death by a long-promised suicide in 2005, the author, journalist, and all-American antihero cut a broad swath through life, becoming as infamous for a love of drink, drugs, and guns, as he was famous for his literary career.
That's a shame. Hunter's antics as the woozy, half-mad, cosmic prankster in a golf hat, shooting glasses, and a gaudy print shirt too often can obscure a less-exciting, but perhaps more significant aspect of his character: Thompson as a writer at work.
Hunter indulged for all the typically human reasons, ranging from an authentic quest for new experience to simply bludgeoning demons into submission. Lord knows that drug-addled lunacy was essential Thompson's life and art, just as it was to William Burroughs, Baudelaire, Byron, and Shelly.
Hunter was perhaps unique because drink-and-drug-fueled madness weren't only his subject matter and milieu—they were his cause célèbre. As the most articulate, and most militant advocate of the better-living-through-chemistry ethos to arise in the counterculture movements 1960s, Thompson saw mind-altering chemicals, particularly high-powered hallucinogenics, as weapons in the culture wars. This was a man, after all, who ran for the Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, on a platform of Freak Power, using the campaign poster designed by Tom W. Benton depicting a fist with two thumbs clenching a button of peyote.
But Hunter did more than get blasted and do crazy stuff. That would make him no different from half of humanity. He also didn't merely get blasted, do crazy stuff, and write a bit about it. That would make him Neal Cassady. Thompson wrote a lot, on a panoramic array of subjects, with dazzling technical proficiency, plus passion, wit, fury, sensitivity, reams of jaw-dropping sensory detail, and a fanatical devotion to the English language roughly akin to what Torquemada felt for the pope.
Curtis Robinson, a former editor of the Aspen Daily News, was a Thompson collaborator for a decade, and has all the requisite tales Thompson-led madness. Yet Robinson paints a picture of the author far different from the well-known trickster/prophet persona.
"Most of my time with Hunter," he said, "we were in late-night work mode."
In a Kentucky drawl and muddled cadence eerily akin to his mentor's voice, Robinson described how hard Thompson worked to make his writing look easy, stressing the endless hours spent at the typewriter, struggling to craft his prose.
"There was this time he was needed a word, a synonym for 'posh,' but with some slightly different meaning," Robinson said. "He tried to find it for 18 straight hours."
"He liked to have people read out loud," Robinson continued. "I could be reading something he had written 20 or 30 years ago, but he would know it so well that if I accidentally skipped a word—even a short one, like an 'and' or 'the,' he would immediately catch it and stop me. That's just how attuned he was to the work, and his own rhythms."
Of course, the guy did manage to get out of the house once in a while.
One of those trips, ostensibly taken to report on a race in the Nevada desert, turned into an epic of creative destruction—a mix of radical political theater, raw debasement, elegant debauchery in the Southern Gothic style, and monkey-wrenching vandalism.
Translated into a Roman à clef, that trip became what Thompson dismissively called "the Vegas book," but the rest of the world would know as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.
Before Vegas, Hunter's patented brand of Gonzo Journalism—the deeply personal, ferociously hallucinogenic style he created in 1969 with "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved"—was still just a sub-genre of New Journalism. The experimental school born in the 1960s called for journalists to surrender the pretense of objectivity and inject their own experiences into stories, often by using techniques more commonly found in novels, short stories, poetry or plays. Before "the Vegas book," Hunter was on a short list of New Journalism's leading lights—along with Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, George Plimpton, Gay Talese, and perhaps a dozen more.
When Vegas was published—first in November 1971 as a story in Rolling Stone magazine, and in book form the following year—all that changed. From the stark blast of its opening line—a sentence that would soon join "Call me Ishmael," and "It is a truth universally acknowledged," among the more memorable opening lines in literature—all the way to the famed coda in which Thompson's protagonist and alter ego, Raoul Duke delivers a venomous, yet truly mournful eulogy for the dead dreams of the utopian 1960's, the reader barely gets chance to breathe. Vulgar and charming, obscene and honest, with a seemingly unquenchable rage, and unending list of things to rage against—the pain of the human condition, the various betrayals he sees of the American Dream, or the horrors of Debbie Reynolds in a silver Afro wig.