Eulogy for Thompson

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[Sepoy notes: Gentle Readers, my good friend farangi shares his thoughts about HST. If HST lives on in anyone's soul - I point squarely to farangi and his upcoming saga of rocking in Jerusalem.]

Rumor holds that Hunter Thompson has been temporarily dead several times already; each round of scuttlebutt credited those lapses into the hereafter to his penchant for aggressive recreation. He himself admitted to being surprised that he had survived the seventies. In the foreword to The Great Shark Hunt, a collection of his last good work, Thompson registers his surprise at being alive:

Last night he loaded one of his many, many guns. He put the barrel to his head-we are not sure whether he used a shotgun or a handgun, but for now we will assume his history of not half-assing when it came to firepower necessitated a shotgun-and blew his mind through wall of his skull.

In my community of writers-some of whose imminence is imminent-I am sadly, with a couple of admirable exceptions, the sole holder of Thompson’s stock. Poisoned by weak cinematic attempts to replicate his work, some refuse to even read the source texts. In graduate school, I helped operate a website named after his Aspen estate, Owl Farm. My compatriots thought the name, which I suggested, was good until one of them realized that I’d hoodwinked them into name-checking Thompson. By then, it was too late. Both admitted my ruse had been wise. Had they known I was associating our work with Thompson, they’d have protested.

No surprise there: we are for the most part keepers of a canon to which we intend to contribute, and until the Paris Review‘s recent attempt at canonization, the establishment witheld its blessings. The reasons for this abound:

He was formally uneducated. He counted among his proudest acheivements an induction into the literary society of his Louisville high school. He eschewed political correctness. He used drugs enthusiastically, and his oft-chemically induced mischief at posh affairs (ranging from loud and rude to felonious property damage) rose in direct proportion to the affairs’ pomposity His sense of humor ran to tall-tales that derailed the credulous easily-consider, for example, the Muskie affair, wherein his unbelievable allegations of a presidential candidate’s overwhelming addiciton to a rare African herb contributed to the candidate’s downfall. He did not suffer fools or sycophants gladly: remember the scene in Breakfast with Hunter where he dewelcomed two silly book-to-screenwriters who challenged ownership of his magnum opus, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? What writer has not dreamed of receiving overeducated and undersouled semiliterati into his salon, and then dispatching them, upon offense, like an oriental despot? He remained unendeared to the Conde Nast crowd.

Thompson is the influence that terrorizes me; fuck Shakespeare and Faulkner and St. John the Divine. For years, I’ve pounded my fists on his bequests, lamenting the fact that I must learn to contend with his peculiar vocabulary, his perceptions, and his courage in living the life I imagine lustily but reject from good Christian sense and a powerful, perpetual case of The Fear. I have dreamt of him. I have heard his voice in my head. I have spoken his lines from memory. I consider myself fortunate to have made the acquaintance of his former manager and her husband, who sent me from Phoenix a momento of her time with Thompson; it occupies a place of honor in my bookcase.

Despite my obvious affection, and after much meditation on him and his place in the literary galaxy, I have decided that the establishment is right after all. He doesn’t belong in the canon. He belongs somewhere else.

A novelist who did journalism to keep his bills paid, Thompson found himself constantly butting his skull against the constraints of the form; along with Wolfe and Mailer, he finally yielded to his daemon and wrote himself into the action. His personality-so novel to the world, but familiar to anyone who knows any eccentric Kentucky gentlemen-so infused his writing that soon whatever he covered faded, outshined by the white heat of his bombastic indignance, endearing self righteousness, and his mystical fealty to truth, which he maintained even in the midst of a bald-faced lie.

So sad and Shakespearean, then, that in 1971, following a groundswell of praise for a Rolling-Stone published serialized quasi-novel summarizing a precarious interracial friendship anchored in shared disgust with bourgois niceties, the rise of the right, Vietnam, and the demise of the 1960’s ideals-not to mention an Olympian desire to eat all the acid Sandoz labs and Owsley could ever, ever produce-he and his muses and fine, fine, cocaine and the zeitgeist merged like a neutron star.

Thompson and his accoutrements, both corporeal and ethereal, collapsed to a center-point from which the man himself would never again emerge. In providing his generation a perfect rubric for understanding itself, he did what all writers unconsciously seek to do, and what many would shrink from if their conscious thoughts conceived it. Thompson merged wholly with text and reader, and ultimately, with history.

He became his adopted journalistic ‘beat,’ the American Dream. Like doom-fated comic Sam Kinison, Thompson is a fin de siecle-yes, let’s call them this, and I mean the word at each level of its definition-prophet, whose indictments cannot, however distasteful, go ignored. He called America on its bullshit, and its failure to live up to its ideals; but, at the end, his precious published writing came weak. It is possessed with name-dropping, a few pat phrases that had once wowed editors, and clumsy metaphors drawing sports and politics and literature into uneasy alliance-through ESPN.com, of all fucking places-and he thusly came to exemplify the decadence he so deplored.

I choose to believe he meant to do this; his Great Work finished, he killed HST #1 upon the publishing of The Great Shark Hunt, and HST #2, deformed at birth, went busily about the Christic work of absorbing a multitude of sins for the purpose of making his point.

He unified observed, observer and receiver, but Thompson never recovered as a public person. How could he? We wouldn’t let him. Stoned teenagers made pilgrimages to Owl Farm and genuflected when his huge convertible sedans burst from the compound gates. Hangers-on shoved drugs into his palm at public appearances. Idiot commentators hung the albatross ‘Gonzo’ around his neck as though by framing him with an adjective they might contain the force of his convictions.

The world’s most powerful and interesting people called on him at home to seek his thoughts on policy, art, and the life of the mind-and, of course, to get way, way, fucked up. On a given night at Owl Farm, one might hit a joint with John Belushi, share a stiff whisky with Gary Hart, or Sandy Berger, discuss photography with Annie Liebowitz, muse on history with Kearns, and/or Goodwin, hit the hot tub with Warren Beatty, or fire off a few hollow-point rounds at propane tanks, on the firing range, with Allen Ginsberg.

Sealed in his compound, Thompson felt invincible, until-as though to make an example of him-the county sheriff, upon the questionable word of a spurned paramour, stormed the house and dragged the elderly Thompson and his drugs and his military-class armaments and his blowup dolls to jail. He beat the charges. Of course he beat the charges. No doubt the district attorney met him in a pretrial conference, and realized, though Thompson was guilty of a great many felonies, that there was no jail in the world big enough to hold all of us.

So now he’s dead-Hunter Stockton Thompson: Rest in Peace.

He blew his gray matter all over Owl Farm’s famous kitchen or den or wherever. Who knows why? Perhaps his famous political bugbears finally got the better of him, though I doubt it. He helped create the climate in which Nixon’s regicide was possible; the Bushes are pikers compared to Nixon, and his grizzled soul.

Maybe Thompson knew he knew he would never write another passage like this, which he is on record as calling ‘the finest thing I’ve ever written’ and maybe the best thing written in American English since Gatsby':

Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seemed like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era – the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant…History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of ‘history’ it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time – and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.

My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights – or very early mornings – when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L.L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder’s jacket… booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got through the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change)… but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that…

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda… You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning…

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 kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

For my part, I think he decided to do to his rapidly deteriorating body what had long ago been done to his superb, glistening soul. He decided to write himself into the story to the very last, framing the Final Issue according to his own terms and proprietary phraseology. To his last breath, he lived a deliberate and meaningful life of great humor, extreme fun, appreciation of beauty, high ideals and well-accomplished purpose that serves to shame we who survive.

There remains little to do after merging with the Logos. The man called Hunter was long dead, glimpsed through a glass darkly to the end by only a privileged few family, lovers and confidants. But for the rest of us who long ago, and greedily, consumed his essence, Hunter S. Thompson’s suicide is redundant, and a relief. He is with the Word now, where he belongs.

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