get this out of the way, first thing: I was in no way of which
I’m aware directly influenced by the work of Hunter S. Thompson.
He didn’t inspire me to want to write; he didn’t inspire me
to want to become a journalist (which I still haven’t done);
and he didn’t instill in me a love for the Hawaiian shirt.
This is not to insult the man as a writer or journalist—or
as a snappy dresser. I liked his stuff well enough. Actually,
my voluble enjoyment of my first reading of Fear and Loathing
in Las Vegas bought me a little bit of grade-school trouble.
In eighth grade I borrowed the book from my father. I was,
I think, more interested in Ralph Steadman’s illustrations
than I was knowledgeable about Thompson’s reputation—the psycho-pharmaceutical
richness of which would remain tantalizingly obscure to me
for another year or two—and my dad handed it over with a shrug,
suggesting that I might not get much out of it at that age.
What I did get out of it most immediately was a rough escort
out of art class to the principal’s office and a couple days
of detention. During the time we were supposed to be learning
the grid system of drawing, I was reading Thompson’s book,
which I had hidden in my desk. I didn’t stand a chance: It
was the funniest book I had ever read, by far, and my giggling,
I was told, ruined the great fun of learning to draw boats
in grids for everyone.
Granted, to my recollection, my reading list up to that point
hadn’t been rife with rebellion. Maybe a taste for the absurd
is fostered by Dr. Seuss; maybe Sendak’s anarchic dream sequences
reinforce a kind of dark escapism; maybe the Hardy Boys series
introduces a compelling and vaguely realistic version of the
adult underworld (their Detective Handbook taught me
both surveillance techniques and drug slang, after all—“horse”,
H, “harry”, “skag”, such fun) maybe the X-Men’s beer-swilling,
cigar-chomping Wolverine encourages you to root for the least
compliant member of the team; maybe Stephen King’s stuff teaches
you that stomach-knotting fear can be fun; A Confederacy
of Dunces and Don Quixote both might elicit sympathy
for a wrongheaded heroism; and maybe the Lord of the Rings
trilogy tricks you into thinking it’s OK for a boy to wear
tights—you know, if he’s, like, a really good archer or something.
. . . No, I’m not saying I had that experience, but . . .
But most of those books, and the others I read from the first
days of literacy until Fear and Loathing, wound up
with the restoration of some sort of order. The Cat in the
Hat is sent packing; Max wakes up, leaving the Wild Things
where they are; the Hardy Boys’ ingenuity leads the cops to
the evil hophead at the Deadman’s Hill Lighthouse Food Court,
or whatever. But, with the exception of the tiny chicken in
Richard Scarry’s books, the one who stubbornly insists in
thinking he’s a dog, and strays from the line to “bow wow”
at passers-by, most young-lit. heroes work—even begrudgingly—to
preserve the system.
and Loathing was likely my first exposure to a protagonist
who was not only not an agent of the status quo, but
was also clearly insane. My grid-system schooner was abandoned,
short at least two masts and without a chance of completion,
before Thompson got to the ether in the trunk of his rental
I moved on to Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail
’72, the vicious tone of which entertained me, though
the politics were light years beyond me at the time: I was
too young to understand the demonization of a president and
the need for savage response—though I get it now. And the
collection The Great Shark Hunt was on whole, I’m sorry
to admit, too sober.
Because, at the time, what I wanted was the personality as
much as the prose: Raoul Duke as much as—really more than—Hunter
So, I lost track of him. I think I reread Las Vegas around
the time the disappointing movie came out, to figure out why
I thought the film lacking, and still found it very, very
funny—if kind of dated. I had a better appreciation for the
craft so, for the first time, I was impressed with Thompson
as a writer rather than as a character, but by that time I’d
gotten on to other narcotized scribes. I don’t know, after
exposure to Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, heavy drug use
played for yucks seemed kind of affected and quaint—like Cheech
and Chong—a throwback persona.
In the interim, too, I had read interviews in which Thompson
himself downplayed the excess for which he had become celebrated:
“Obviously my drug use is exaggerated or I would be long since
dead,” he told USA Today in 1990. Coupled with the
speculative, perhaps petty, statements of other writers—if
he had done what he said, he couldn’t have written what he
wrote, they contended—this reinforced the vision of Thompson
as a fabulist and satirist, more than simple fabled satyr.
None of which should compromise his appeal; though I think,
for some fans, it might. Because Thompson was famous as much
for being Thompson as for being a writer. He was the guy who
ran for office on the Freak ticket; the guy who threatened
to shoot trespassers; the guy who agreed to an on-camera interview
with Conan O’Brien only on the condition that O’Brien drink
bourbon and shotgun the hell out of Thompson’s backyard with
him; he was the guy whose “real” life gave Garry Trudeau’s
barely-veiled homage, Doonesberry’s dangerous
drughound Uncle Duke, a run for his money. And frankly this
legendary stuff was considerably more engaging than Thompson’s
recent gig as a columnist for ESPN—unless deterioration is
Currently, though, I’m reading Thompson’s collected letters,
the first volume of which was loaned to me by a coworker attached
enough to Thompson’s work to have received numerous e-mails
from friends expressing sympathy after the writer’s suicide.
The volume, which contains HST’s correspondence from his time
as an Air Force sportswriter, his first professional journalism
gigs and his raucous life in Greenwich Village as a struggling
(professionally, existentially, hormonally and biochemically)
writer is an absolutely riveting read; all the more so because
you must now go into it in full knowledge of the story’s end—a
tragic end both true and true to form. Thompson at his last
was still a violent opponent of the status quo.
There are so many unread books and untried authors that I
want to get to. I don’t know if I’ll revisit any of Thompson’s
journalism or try any of his overt fiction. I may. But this
collection has put me in mind of another author, Oscar Wilde,
another outsider, who said of his own career: “I put all my
genius into my life; I put only my talent into my work.”
So, I may pass on The Kingdom of Fear and The Rum
Diary; but I’m going to hit up my coworker for Vol. II
of the letters. They’re genius.