North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Remembering Hunter

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Yesterday, Feburary 20th, marked the fifth anniversary of Hunter Thompson’s death. It still doesn’t feel like it’s been that long; I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing the day I found out he died.

I was sitting in front of an ancient IBM laptop, posting on an internet forum. It was late, maybe one in the morning. The news broke, as I remember, over CBC Radio; I’m pretty sure I have it on tape somewhere.

At the time, there was no writer I respected more, no writer – scratch that, no person – that I respected more, that I wanted to model myself after more. Thompson was not just a writer; he was a demigod. He was somebody who had Been There, who had taken the ticket and rode the ride. He was simultaneously incredible, illuminating and inspirational.

I was shocked when I heard he was dead. For everything he had done, everything that he had lived through… wasn’t he basically immortal? He was the guy who had drank his way through the Kentucky Derby, had done more drugs in Las Vegas and all across the US then everybody I knew put together. He had been tear gassed, had been beaten by police and, as I recall, involved in a fight on a train.  And now he was dead?

It’s worth noting I was kind of a dumb kid. I was pretty sheltered and I did weird things. I listened to weird music where the artist had a name like Beefheart or Zappa. I watched weird movies, like the one where a tennis player has a meltdown in the middle of a game. I was basically an outcast; in Hunter I found somebody who was also weird – but in the best way possible. Hunter did things his own damn way. That, more then anything, spoke to me. He was somebody who not only didn’t fit in, he seemed to embrace his status.

Of course, Hunter was far more important then just somebody who influenced me. At his peak, Hunter was one of the most important writers in North America. He was part of a select few that revolutionized journalism; along with Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe, he was a pillar of the so-called New Journalism. He was able to take any event – the Kentucky Derby, a weekend trip to Vegas, the 1972 Republican Convention – and paint a picture of madness, both hilarious and with a scary ring of truth. When he was really rolling, Hunter could write with the best of them. Hell, he was the best of them.

But he rarely did, especially later on in his life.

Thompson’s legacy is undoubtedly cemented by now and will likely stand out more then Talese, Wolfe or any of his contemporaries (remember Lester Bangs, anybody?). He has gone down as the writer of three excellent books, of one amazing compilation and as the voice of a period in time; that’s more then most people will ever get.

But that only covers a small sample of his output; those books were the first four works he had published. Between them, they represent a little more then 10 years. What then of all his other work? What happened?

Part of what happened was no doubt of his own making. Thompson, the journalist, had written an image of Thompson, the Hunter S., who was a wild animal that did crazy drugs, drank and fired guns often past excess and lived, as Frank Zappa once said, beyond the fringe of audience comprehension.

Thompson was, of course, none of those things. And yet, he was all of them. In public, Thompson was everything he was supposed to be. He wore his hat and smoked on TV. He fired guns with Conan O’Brien. He talked fast, in his low monotone, and he hung out with people like Johnny Depp, Warren Zevon and George McGovern.

In private, he was a little different. E. Jean Carroll’s biography of Thompson paints him as a troubled writer, somebody who laboured over his works at length, typing all night in the basement.

After his third book, he never again wrote as well. One can see the signs of this in his first collection, The Great Shark Hunt. Towards the end, in pieces where he writes about Muhammad Ali and the 1976 Election, one can feel him moving way from the originality of his earlier works. Hunter was no longer including himself in his stories, but the stories were secondary to writing about Thompson writing about Hunter.

Really, none of his writing after what’s included in The Great Shark Hunt is all that necessary; most of it’s only just okay. His second collection, Generation of Swine, is a bunch of stale columns from his time at the San Francisco Chronicle. The next book, Songs of the Doomed, is only slightly better, mostly because it’s the closest thing to a memoir he ever wrote.

As he aged, his work increasingly felt more and more forced. Better then Sex has moments where it’s very good – his remembrance of Richard Nixon is among his best writing – but on the whole it’s like he’s trying to recapture past glories. His last two books barely stand with the first few; they almost feel like somebody trying to stay in character in a SNL skit that’s breaking apart.

Essentially, Thompson gave the impression of being trapped. Sure, he was wildly successful, but at what cost? He had to be Hunter. Everybody expected him to act a certain way, to dress a certain way, to drink, smoke, talk, be a certain way. There was no escaping it for Thompson – who wanted a sane, sober Raoul Duke? For that matter, who thought that Hunter would – could – get old?

Back a few years ago, Will Leitch wrote a few stories about when he met Thompson. In one, he recounts being asked to read something from Thompson’s first collection of letters. After Leitch finishes, he has a great observation:

I imagined what it must be like, hearing your own voice from 30 years ago. The memories, the fear, the timelessness. I wonder if he has people read him stuff he’s written recently. I doubt it.

When I first started reading Thompson’s work, it was on an old, battered copy of Fear and Loathing from the library. Naturally, I assumed that if his book was anything like real life, he was long dead. I wasn’t far off.

Even when Thompson was still alive, he was still a memory: people recognized his work, but everybody associated him with his stuff from the past. Five years after his death, what’s changed?

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Written by M.

February 21, 2010 at 11:39 pm

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