March 6, 2005

A savage literary journey meets its end

By: J.P. Maloney Jr.

Hunter S. Thompson, the journalist and author whose acerbic wit and idiosyncratic prose colored the late 1960s and early 1970s, is dead at 67. He took his own life by gunshot to the head at his home, which he liked to call a fortified compound, in Woody Creek, Colorado, on February 20. Although his suicide was not altogether surprising to some, the shock from his violent end reverberated throughout the literary world. He was, in the end, a superbly talented man of letters who composed important commentaries on mankind, America, and the body politic in the latter decades of the 20th century. He accomplished this with a forceful, manic, and eccentric literary presence. His work inspired some who found his approach and message refreshing, but it shocked many who, nonetheless, could not seem to look away. And that was part of the essence of his genius.

He is best known for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his excessive, drug-filled, stream-of-consciousness tale supposedly about covering a desert motorcycle rally and a district attorneys’ conference in 1971 Las Vegas for Rolling Stone magazine. However, that book’s extended title, A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, captures the nature of the man’s mission and life’s work much more accurately.

For a time, Thompson was a hard-hitting and influential writer who dispensed with the journalistic standard of detached objectivity with the same reckless abandon he displayed in disregarding drug and firearm restrictions. For example, when many journalists were writing about the Hell’s Angels from midtown Manhattan, Thompson spent almost a year with the Angels, attending their parties with Ken Kesey, even befriending some and joining their infamous and feared rallies. He became a participatory observer and wrote insightfully about what he saw in the outlaw men who joined motorcycle gangs when such institutions were collectively at the top of the FBI’s most wanted list. Thompson used wildly descriptive language to portray his subject and to grab his reader’s attention. About a Hell’s Angels rally, he wrote: “The Menace is loose again, the Hell’s Angels, the hundred-carat headline, running fast and loud on the early morning freeway, low in the saddle, nobody smiles, jamming crazy through traffic and ninety miles an hour . . . like Genghis Khan on an iron horse, a monster steed with a fiery anus, flat out through the eye of a beer can and up your daughter’s leg with no quarter asked and none given.” His inside accounts of the Angels were developed into a 1966 book, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, that startled the literary establishment, much as the Angels shocked the public.

Thompson had developed a unique, deeply subjective style that blended exaggerated fact with experience-based fiction. He called his reporting “gonzo” journalism, although the establishment tapped him as part of the New Journalism movement along with Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese. New Journalism evolved in the 1960s and relied on the reporter becoming a character in the story. Thompson took this approach and a license to write about anything to their creative limits. He consumed public events such as the Kentucky Derby, the Super Bowl, and high-profile political races with an exceptional eye for people’s motives. He injected himself into his stories completely, becoming part of the subject matter and embracing subjectiveness as the most genuine method of reporting. Ultimately, his unrestrained and unrivaled method of writing about events and people became his hallmark.

As much as he loved sports, especially football, Thompson was a true political junkie who covered the 1972 presidential campaign for Rolling Stone magazine with passion. He dove into the inner workings of the Democratic Party primary process and became an unabashed supporter of George McGovern in the process. His brutal characterizations of McGovern’s competition were not well received. Of Hubert Humphrey, he opined: “Any political party that can’t cough up anything better than a treacherous brain-damaged old vulture like Hubert Humphrey deserves every beating it gets. . . . he talks like an eighty-year-old woman who just discovered speed.” Thompson wrote that Edmund Muskie “talked like a farmer with terminal cancer trying to borrow money on next year’s crop. . . . Sending Muskie against Nixon would have been like sending a three-toed sloth out to seize turf from a wolverine.”

Harsh commentary aside, Thompson reported adeptly on the intricate parliamentary gamesmanship that occurred at the Miami Convention in 1972 when Big Labor moved to deny McGovern a first-ballot nomination, even though he had sufficient delegates. This was in the days when there was real action at party nominating conventions, before they devolved into the scripted infomercials we now experience. On the floor in Miami, Thompson astutely interpreted a preliminary delegate challenge test vote, apparently working against McGovern, to be confirmation that the McGovern camp had full control over enough delegates to ensure a successful first-ballot presidential nomination. He wrote about the entire presidential campaign and national convention experience in exhausting, but informative, detail in his 1973 book, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. (Pages 281-316 of the book contain great detail on the intricate floor voting maneuvers and delegate tactics used in an attempt to stop McGovern’s nomination.) The book showcased not only Thompson’s unruly rhetoric and provocative style, but also his ability to dig effectively into a story and report facts as he viewed them to be.

Under the cover of his brutally candid observations, Thompson had a gift for looking beyond the surface and declaring the truths he found there, however dark, about American life and politics. Inspired by Fitzgerald and Faulkner, he used his creative gift for literature as a social critic, with a healthy smattering of black comedy in his reporting. Throughout his works, he appeared to be digging for some deeper meaning, no matter how sardonic his interpretive lens. Regardless, as depraved as he viewed the world and its notable actors to be, Thompson maintained an originality in his descriptive writing that kept his readers engaged.

As a political reporter, Thompson’s subjective approach has some interesting relevance for today’s political journalism, which he described as “very lazy and almost cowardly in its obsequiousness” in a 2003 interview. Today there is much debate about whether various media outlets are truly objective, presuming objectivity is required for credibility. For example, Fox News declares itself “fair and balanced,” yet many believe it has an overtly conservative slant. Further, CBS News recently suffered a scandal after anchor Dan Rather presided over a scathing report, apparently based on forged documents, about the president in the heat of the 2004 campaign. CBS News is striving to recover credibility, while critics have claimed more evidence that Rather has a liberal bias and an extraordinary zeal for attacking Republican presidents. Thompson’s view was that objectivity has no valuable place in reporting on politics. He said: “Objective journalism is one of the main reasons that American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long.” On a similar note, he declared: “Well, you can’t be objective when you’re dealing with passionate situations, politics and so forth. . . . You had to be subjective to understand Nixon.” Thompson’s criticisms push us to consider whether today’s media should continue to strive for political reporting governed by the pretense of objectivity.

Thompson’s inspiration peaked in the ’60s and ’70s, and his vision from then forward reflected the strong anti-establishment sentiment he fed on during that period. Perhaps his wave “finally broke and rolled back” after his nemesis, Richard Nixon, resigned the presidency. He continued frothing at the pen in the ’80s and ’90s, lashing out at such favorite targets as Presidents Reagan and Bush. However, over time, his irreverent diatribes appeared to become less genuinely charged and more mailed-in imitations of his most zealous work attacking Nixon and the old-line establishment Democrats, such as Humphrey and AFL-CIO über-boss George Meany. Thompson viewed the political spectrum as circular and he did not fit neatly into the present notion of a linear Left-Liberal/Democrat – Right-Conservative/Republican landscape. His political viewpoint seemed to be a strange mix between a regular guy versus the power brokers and wealthy’ populist and an extreme libertarian.

Thompson’s cynical–some would say increasingly disturbed–perspective on American life is captured fittingly enough in some of his more recent book titles: Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream (1990) and Generation of Swine, Gonzo Papers Vol. 2: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ’80s (1988). These works are not novels, but series of essays on various newsworthy events and political happenings replete with Thompson’s colorful, exaggerated narrative and trenchant analyses. At the same time, his criticisms began to read more mean-spirited than creative and satirical, as when his passion was bright. In the end, he may have been feeling the inner death of his own excessively contrarian American dream and the loss of any real desire to continue adding to the body of American literature. His final work was as a sports columnist for’s Page 2, which provided a certain poetic arc to his writing career that began as a sports editor at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. With the right eyes, one could still see the last flickering hints of his real talent, but his inspiration was largely gone.

Thompson characteristically left detailed instructions for his family to blast his cremated remains out of a cannon onto his property in the mountains near Aspen, Colorado. His wife, Anita, his son, Juan, and a grandson are planning to meet his request, intent on celebrating Thompson’s larger-than-life presence, a life lived completely on its own terms. He will be remembered also by legions of admirers and an American literary community made richer by his presence and now momentarily hollowed by his absence.

J.P. Maloney, Jr. is an attorney and part-time writer who has lived in Washington, D.C. for over nine years. He is originally from Connecticut and works internationally.