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Going, Going, Gonzo

We’ll 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 . . . nevermind.

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.

Fear 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 car.

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 Stockton Thompson.

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 your bag.

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.

—John Rodat

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