I can remember the exact day and moment that I first read one of Hunter Thompson’s books. I can remember what the weather was like and how the lighting in the room sent shadows cascading off the walls in that spare, and cramped two-bedroom apartment in the East Village — just a few doors up from the New York chapter of the Hell’s Angels headquarters. Even though it was a sunny and crisp day in early March, the front room revealed only shards of light because the shades were drawn. Nonetheless, one of those beams of sunlight glowed upon a hardcover copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas lying there next to the television. I remember that the book belonged to a girl whose name escapes me, but I remember thinking that it was odd that this particular girl would have such a book because it wasn’t about cats or gourmet cooking.
Anyway, I remember that at that point in my life I was very arrogant and anti anything that was remotely associated with the mainstream culture or had even the slightest ties to corporate America. To me, though I had only a cursory knowledge of his work, I knew something about his lifestyle from reading magazines and books that revealed such things. But to that point, Thompson was much too benign for my tastes. He was, I reasoned, another literary phony like Norman Mailer, who was all talk and flash but no depth. With Thompson, I knew the stories about the decadence and excess and thought it was an exaggeration or, worse, untruthful. It wasn’t like he was John O’Brien, whose Leaving Las Vegas was stunningly autobiographical. But what I didn’t know then was that truth and good reporting were mutually exclusive. Just because something might not have happened didn’t mean it wasn’t true.
That, I think, is part of the essence of Hunter Thompson… well, that and the fact that his life sounded like it was the greatest party anyone has ever been to.
Anyway, for some reason the book was daring me to pick it up that March afternoon. Maybe it was because of my fascination with Las Vegas, or the crazy Ralph Steadman illustrated cover that drew me in. Either way, I picked the book up, sat on the couch in that empty apartment, and didn’t get up until I had read every page. As soon as I read that first sentence, I was trapped and my way of looking at literature and journalism had changed forever.
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive. . . .” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas.
The book was as close to perfect as anything I had read at that point in my life. Even though I was 21 and had spent most of my collegiate days in New York and Philadelphia, a light bulb went off above my head. I immediately remember thinking, “So this is how it’s done.”
It was dramatic, revealing, intelligent like reading Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and, above all, screamingly funny. I remember cackling out loud at the scene where Thompson’s alter ego, Raoul Duke, was playing blackjack in Circus Circus while a family of acrobats was performing their act on the trapeze hanging from the big top above the tables.
When I was 7 and went to Las Vegas to visit my grandparents with my family, Circus Circus was the greatest place on earth. My little mind was blown knowing that such a place — with its buffets, video games, midway, candy, funhouse mirrors, and prizes — existed. It was like a parallel universe far away from my cozy world of family, school and wholesomeness. Reading Hunter Thompson’s view of Circus Circus, even at age 21, rocked my world.
Anyway, as most literate people have heard in the news by now, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson died on Sunday of a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head. Anyone who has read anything he has written should not have been too surprised that his demise came the way it did. Better yet, most devotees to the good doctor are probably surprised that he lasted as long as he did without pulling a Jackson Pollack or Lenny Bruce.
Then again, Thompson was such a big fan of Ernest Hemmingway that he would retype Hemmingway’s novels in order to better understand the rhythm and structure. Who would have guessed that Thompson’s Ketchum was a “heavily fortified” compound on the outskirts of tony Aspen. In that regard, perhaps Thompson’s demise was quite apropos.
Because I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas I was motivated to read everything else Thompson wrote. The Great Shark Hunt came next, followed by Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. Even though I thought some of his work lacked the urgency and pitch-perfect timing of Las Vegas, I was intrigued by Thompson’s obsession with Richard Nixon and was absolutely riveted when reading about his interview with his nemesis aboard Air Force One, where Thompson was advised that he could only talk to the president about football. For as vile as Thompson said Nixon was, I’m pretty sure no other president would ever grant anything close to the access that old Tricky Dick gave the professor of gonzo journalism. I doubt Thompson could even get credentials these days.
I had such a fondness for Thompson that I even used his work as source material for my senior thesis on President Carter’s role in the Camp David Peace Accords. I footnoted a passage from Shark Hunt regarding former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy, but my professor struck the “Dr.” from the formal “Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” in the bibliography.
I thought it was kind of funny.
That fondness grew to a point where I tried to get other people to read his books, too, but my friends don’t really read, nor would they “get” Thompson. However, my friend John, a voracious reader in his own right, has memorized passages from Las Vegas. We both get a good laugh when talking about the scene where Duke fires a grapefruit instead of a radio into the tub filled with water and Duke’s Samoan lawyer.
What a hoot.
More than anything, Thompson’s work taught me a very valuable lesson about journalism that escapes just about every modern, mainstream editor and publisher. The lesson is that sometimes the journey and the carnival surrounding the event is more important or newsworthy than what is supposed to be the news. In Las Vegas, Thompson’s mission was to cover the Mint 400 car race, but that event is barely a footnote to real story.
It also helped me realize that mainstream journalism is pure bullshit:
Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits, a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo cage.
Sounds like he and I have worked at some of the same places.