Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide this past weekend. Like many I am saddened by Thompson’s decision to take his own life. I don’t for a moment pretend to understand why he did it, but after thinking about it for a few days I have decided that, despite the loss for the rest of us, this was precisely the way Thompson should depart — shocking, violent and utterly gonzo.
Thompson is best known for the unapologetic drug use of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but that’s really selling Thompson very short. It seems to me Thompson was trying to shock a deeply jaded populace. America was at the end of an ideological civil war — Civil Rights, Vietnam, Hippies, et al. Kerouac was dead. Ginsberg had failed to bring down the Pentagon with flowers. The optimism of the ‘60s was crashing and burning.
Into this melee stepped Hunter S Thompson with a eulogy for the dreams of the 1960’s, one that mourned, but also tried to lay the empty idealism to rest. The drug use in the novel, to me anyway, is a so-deranged-it’s-sane reaction to a world that must certainly have seemed deranged. As they say, if everyone is insane, sanity looks insane.
Also missing in most writing about the book (on the web anyway) is the novel’s subtitle, which is really a more accurate description of the book: A savage journey to the heart of the America Dream2.
And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right sort of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. – Fear and Loathing
What saddens me most of all about Thompson’s death is that, like William Burroughs (and probably DeQuincy in his day), he will probably be remember more for the way he wrote than what he wrote. Yes, perhaps he did ingest quite a few chemicals, and yes, perhaps he did celebrate it (which differs from Burroughs), but Thompson was not just chemicals, nor was he just a journalist.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is, and will remain, a scathing indictment of the corruption and failure of the 1960s version of the American Dream. It’s Thompson’s chronicling of the metamorphosis from dream to nightmare, not his outlandish drug intake, that makes Fear and Loathing a compelling piece of literature.
His self-described “gonzo” style of reporting is often characterized as the interjection of the reporter into the story, but Thompson knew as well of the rest of us that every writer interjects herself into the story. His “gonzo” style of writing is not an injection of Hunter S. Thompson into the story, but a removal of the mythical character of his subjects. Thompson killed our false heroes.
He stripped us all to our barest and yes sometimes basest parts. If the story still required myth then the fictionalized Thompson was there to step up, but never is there a moment in Thompson’s political writings where politicians or leaders are any more than fellow fucked up passengers on voyage so grand that overshadows us all. A voyage on in which, as Jeff Magnum has said, how strange it is to be anything at all.
And now Thompson has propelled himself beyond this voyage into another. I bid you farewell Mr. Thompson and naively hope that the work you leave behind can grow to eclipse the shadow you cast in writing it.