by Scott Alexander Young
Jul. 18 2010
"These are bad times for people who like to sit outside the library
at dawn on a rainy morning and get ripped to the tits on crank and
-- Hunter S. Thompson, Songs of the Doomed
Today, July 18th, is Hunter S. Thompson's 73rd birthday, or at least
it would be if he hadn't shot himself dead 5 years ago while his
grandson played in another room of the rambling log cabin that was
his home in Woody Creek, Colorado.
Based on those credentials, Hunter S. Thompson might present himself
as an unlikely candidate for hero, literary or otherwise. Suffice to
say that this lowly hack does have literary heroes, including figures
as jumbled and miscellaneous as Lord Byron, Douglas Adams, Evelyn
Waugh, William S. Burroughs and Oscar Wilde, and Hunter S. Thompson
is one of them. That's despite the fact I'm a cynical and jaded
veteran of the journalistic trade and aware there are a lot of
criticisms you can level at Thompson and his legacy. For one thing,
he has become the poster boy for an awful lot of readers who cnta
evne slpel tiher nwo nasem, let alone tell you for example the name
of the current vice president of the United States. Well at least
they're reading something I guess.
Also, a parsing of any of Thompson's numerous biographies and one
quickly becomes aware of just how out-of-control the author of Hells
Angels could get. At his worst, he must have been a fucking
nightmare. A great screaming and shouting physical brute demanding
expenses and room service and bottles of Chivas Regal sent up to his
room so that he could finish his goddamn column. But it was even
worse than that it seems he beat his long-suffering first wife
Sandy, and made a lot of other people suffer in the shadow of his
savage temper. There was if we are honest, a little something of the
'Mel Gibson in the night' about the so-called good doctor.
And yet. However enthralling or appalling his antics were, the reason
he had stood out in the first place was that at his best he wrote the
same way a Cheetah can run. "A man of vast syntactical resources" as
William F. Buckley put it. In the 2006 biopic 'Hunter S. Thompson on
Film', Buckley also reads this piece by Thompson aloud.
"Richard Nixon has never been one of my favorite people anyway. For
years I've regarded his existence as a monument to all the rancid
genes and broken chromosones that corrupt the possibilities of the
American Dream; he was a foul caricature of himself, a man with no
soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the
style of a poison toad. The Nixon I remembered was absolutely
humorless; I couldn't imagine him laughing at anything except maybe a
paraplegic who wanted to vote Democratic but couldn't quite reach the
lever on the voting machine."
In the film, I seem to recall Buckley folds the book shut, grimaces
and says: "That's as mean as you can get." (Quite right, which is why
we need more reporters more like him around today, and never mind
their personal habits. Whoops! Nearly fell into the terrible trap of
trying to write like Thompson, an amateurish slip if ever there was one).
However, sad to say, after 1990's Songs of the Doomed, it was all,
for the most part, a somewhat pale imitation or rehash of his own
material: There were new collections of old works, somewhat
incoherent attempts at fiction, silly movies and even in his columns,
the use of the same phrases over and over as if to fill space on
the page. 'We are after all professionals/buy the ticket take the
ride/when the going gets weird the wierd turn pro/Mahalo, I am Lono'
and so on we go. Then a little later, fat volumes of his collected
letters came out, and when they actually turned out to be a bracingly
good read, his reputation was somewhat salvaged. It turned out that
Hunter S. Thompson's bread-and-butter notes were more interesting
than most other writers' best contrivances.
Even in the journalism, midst all the repetitions and strange leaps
in continuity, there were flashes of brilliance. One famous example
would be the piece he wrote for ESPN of all people on the morning of
9/11, where he quite accurately predicted the US administration's
game-plan for at least the next eight years. And here and there were
passages to remind you that even when you took away the politics,
sentence by sentence, Thompson was one of the best writers who ever
drew breath, even if he never drew a sober one. Just listen to this,
it's from the opening part of Fear & Loathing in Elko:-
"It is autumn, as you know, and things are beginning to die. It is so
wonderful to be out in the crisp fall air, with the leaves turning
gold and the grass turning brown, and the warmth going out of the
sunlight and big hot fires in the fireplace while Buddy rakes the
lawn. We see a lot of bombs on TV because we watch it a lot more, now
that the days get shorter and shorter, and darkness comes so soon,
and all the flowers die from freezing. Oh, God! You should have been
with me yesterday when I finished my ham and eggs and knocked back
some whiskey and picked up my Weatherby Mark V .300 Magnum and a ball
of black Opium for dessert and went outside with a fierce kind of joy
in my heart because I was Proud to be an American on a day like this.
If felt like a goddamn Football Game, Jann it was like Paradise….
You remember that bliss you felt when we powered down to the farm and
whipped Stanford? Well, it felt like That."
You don't even need to be an American to be stirred by the rhythm and
the deceptive simplicity of that passage. "We see a lot of bombs on
TV because we watch it a lot more".
And in this context, the difference between Hunter Stockon Thompson
and Mel Columcille Gerard Gibson? Well one is an alright-ish sort of
actor and a decent technician of a director with a violent streak and
the other Thompson- was a wordsmith of genius who called the shots
on the towering figures of his times. His enemies were for the most
part, to put it mildly, worthy political adversaries: Richard Nixon,
Ronald Reagan and (it's more subtly stated in the books) Bill
Clinton. Mel Gibson's enemies seem to be women and babies and blacks
and jews. But let's leave the Aussie battler out of this and shut
it down because I have other things to do today aside from tipping my
hat to a potentially dangerous but also oddly rewarding role model.
It comes down to this for me. At Thompson's best, no-one could top
him then or now. And personally, although I enjoyed Fear & Loathing
in Las Vegas I enjoyed more Generation of Swine, his collection of
columns from the San Francisco Examiner in the late 80s. Even the
straightest pieces are of course infused by his wildly inventive and
mischevious voice, but plenty of them are also just good reportage.
It's also fascinating to see that however addled with substances he
reputedly was, Thompson could still calculate the betting odds on a
point spread of the American electoral college, and blow up a jeep
all in the same night. All those abstemious, respectable mainstream
journalists who deride Thompson (however accurately at times) should
attempt to write as many well-crafted, savagely funny truisms in a
decade as this guy could churn out in just a month writing for the Examiner.
So in memory of the crazy, gifted bastard, lets wrap this up with
the deleted three stanzas of WH Auden's 'In Memory of WB Yeats' that
Hunter S. was very fond of quoting:
"Time that is intolerant Of the brave and the innocent, And
indifferent in a week To a beautiful physique, Worships language and
forgives Everyone by whom it lives; Pardons cowardice, conceit, Lays
its honours at their feet. Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views, And will pardon Paul Claudel, Pardons
him for writing well."
And if that's not an excuse, it'll just have to do as an alibi.