Heartbreak in America: Remembering Hunter S. Thompson

When word came on the death of Hunter S. Thompson, I was shocked as anyone in the news media. I was covering military affairs stories in South Korea at the time, and I nearly fell over in shock.

Thompson was an icon, a literary hero, a father of ideas better left unspoken except in smoky back rooms after one too many slugs of Wild Turkey.

Thompson had fangs he showed to idiots, yes-men and weasels. He put the screws to the likes of Nixon, Clinton and Bush. When he died, a great void opened up in journalism- a vacuum left behind by a man who not only called a spade what it is, but would also not hesitate to use that spade to put the literary smack down on the spineless and simpering public figures that fueled his anger.

The lights have not gone out in Thompson’s fortified compound at Woody Creek, Colorado; but life there has gotten a great deal quieter. The author was fond of firing an assortment of rifles, handguns and even the occasional detonation of plastic explosive on his property.

One well-known dispute between Thompson and a neighbor was started over the weapons fire. No one in his neck of the woods will ever encounter another controversy started, taken up by or created in the wake of Hunter Thompson.

Thompson’s first published book was HELL’S ANGELS, a factual account of the most feared gang in America at the time. Today’s thugs can’t compare with the Angels; most of the people terrifying Americans now can barely operate their own weapons with accuracy, let alone navigate a complicated machine like a motorcycle.

They wouldn’t bother even if they could figure out the controls, it’s impossible to install a massive subwoofer on a chopper – you can’t listen to gangsta rap while wearing a crash helmet.

The Angels were a semi-organized professional army on wheels, they went where they pleased and did what they wanted, until the cops could bring them down one and two at a time.

Motorcycle crashes wiped out some of the worst; others languished in prison for manslaughter and armed robbery offenses. Thompson covered this group of riders, noting the ones who weren’t interested in violence for its own sake and trying to stay clear of the real maniacs in the bunch.

In the end, he fell victim to his own subjects, getting a savage beating from a group of Angels he had angered somehow. Thompson did stay in touch with a few of the ‘decent Angels’ after the beating, and the book wound up making Thompson a sought-after name.

He was the ultimate freelancer in one respect, achieving wild success and fame in spite of being a notoriously difficult man to work with. After Hell’s Angels, Thompson got an avalanche of assignments to cover freelance pieces, but Thompson was vulnerable to pressure – he often cracked and failed to get the story.

His most spectacular failure to complete an assignment resulted in his most famous book of all time: Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. It was the story of a man and his drug collection-a hallucinatory journey through the heart of 1970s Vegas and all the fear it could inspire in the heart of a man gripped by evil chemicals that warp the mind and make the body disobey the brain’s commands.

Fear and Loathing started off as a mundane assignment from a sports magazine; Thompson was to observe and write a mere four hundred words about the Mint 400 motorcycle race in the Nevada desert. Thompson turned in more than ten thousand words and failed miserably to do the job. It was his greatest triumph.

After Fear and Loathing, the writer found he was having trouble separating himself from the persona in the book. He gave interviews saying as much, claiming he didn’t know what people wanted anymore – the real deal or the cartoon character described in Fear and Loathing.

Thompson would write and write and write after the book came out, but nothing came close to the savage anger and furious prose of that classic work.

He had other successes, including a revival of interest after he released a collection of letters covering many years in his struggle to be recognized as a writer.

He put out collections of his ramblings for ESPN.com, released his first work of fiction which sat unread for many years: The Rum Diary was something Thompson ached to have recognized as a legitimate work when he was just getting started.

Many decades later the work got a proper release. The most notable achievement of the later part of his career was his involvement with, and approval of Terry Gilliam’s version of Thompson’s most famous work.

The film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas succeeded in creating what many considered unfilmable. The movie is a very accurate representation of the book-the visuals, the pacing and the tone all match the original.

It was a rare feat to take such a literal approach and succeed. In a commentary recorded for the Criterion DVD version of the film, Thompson’s assistant remarked with glee that he watched it practically every day.

In his final years, Hunter Thompson suffered from a variety of physical ailments including a broken leg, back trouble and hip replacement surgery.

He was in such a great deal of pain in the last year of his life that standing unassisted was nearly impossible. Those around him knew he was unhappy over the loss of independence and mobility he once enjoyed. He took matters into his own hands on February 20th, 1995 and fatally shot himself.

He left behind a wife and family, but also a legion of people who read what had been written, and recognized it for a kind of Zen-like truth even in the face of the wild exaggeration, caricature, and hallucination that went into it. Rest in peace, Hunter, you leave behind a legacy of one.

No other writer can match or even imitate his style without appearing hopelessly foolish. A one-man genre is quite an achievement, and his words will be read, studied and debated for a long time to come. As long as there is an America, there will always be men and women who understand what Hunter Stockton Thompson was about, a uniquely red-white-and-blue phenomenon.

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