Monday, February 21, 2005

Gonzo Obit

Hunter S. Thompson, the hard-living writer who inserted himself into his accounts of America's underbelly and popularized a first-person form of journalism in books such as "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," has committed suicide.

Thompson was found dead Sunday in his Aspen-area home of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, sheriff's officials said. He was 67.

Hunter Thompson might just have been the most influential American writer of the last few decades. Changes he wrought were both good (new subjects, a flowering of new styles of reporting, and a willingness to explore deeper meaning in places beyond the explicit assignment) and bad (his insertion of himself into his stories has in other hands often simply become lazy narcissism, and the rules he broke were generally there for a reason, so as with free jazz, lesser talents could claim to be "New Journalists" when they were really just making noise). And then, of course, there were the drugs.

I saw Thompson speak once, in 1985 or 1986. He had been booked as a speaker at Stanford. He showed up late, then rambled incoherently, a bottle of bourbon under his chair. He graciously accepted the joint a student handed him onstage. I couldn't tell if he was playing his self-caricature, or if I was simply seeing the logical consequence of his adoption of Dr. Johnson's statement that "He who makes a beast of himself avoids the pain of being a man." My sense at the time was that perhaps he really did do all the things his books said he did, though I wondered how he could possibly fire up enough synapses to be the guy who wrote about them.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was sort of the Catcher in the Rye for my generation. Even if his life served in some ways as a "this is your brain on drugs" warning about the consequences of his choices, he was a warts-and-all icon, and writing about politics and popular (sub)culture is forever different because of him.

Vaya con dios, you rat bastard.

Update: Thanks to the reader who caught my $%$##! typo -- it is indeed "beast," not best.


Blogger <-<--esoder<---<----<----- said...

I want to correct Dr. Johnson's quote:
"He who makes a beast of himself avoids the pain of being a man."

It's 'beast' not 'best.'

I saw him speak at Berkeley around the same time you did. Same thing, he showed up an hour or so late. The opening band, Alice Donut, kept playing. Not the best sort of music to keep an impatient crowd calm.

When he finally got there, someone shouted out "Why are you so late?" He replied, "Cuz there's no good speed in Berkeley." And then someone shouted out a phone number that routes to Barrington Hall (the house famous for acid parties, disturbing the peace, and the occasional accidental death - now closed). People threw dozens of joints on stage and he scooped them all up with surprising alacrity for a man his age.

He then rambled semi-coherently for an hour or so. And when he tried to take questions, the acoustics were so bad in Zellerbach that he couldn't hear the audience. It was something of a let down in that he was more a caricature of himself than even Trudeau's cartoons.

His death is also a let down. For a long time, I thought we would hear of an accidental death related to firearms or, perhaps, explosives. I never thought he would take his own life, and despite his family's pleas for privacy, I believe his fans are owed an explanation, or at least a final column.

I need to make sense of this. Did he write a farewell article? What was his last drink? Which gun did he use? The big chrome .44 Magnum? Did he wrap himself in an American Flag?

Most important: What was the straw that broke the great beast's back?

2:28 PM  

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