I’m sure the blogoverse is going to be simply awash with eulogies for Hunter S. Thompson today, as people process and ponder the passing of the father of gonzo journalism, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. While I hate to be part of any meme du jour, here’s my two cents worth anyway . . .
I came to appreciate Thompson relatively late in his career, around 1983 or so, and I think I was drawn in as much by the art work of frequent collaborator Ralph Steadman as I was by what I knew about Thompson’s writing itself. Steadman’s work reminded me of Geralf Scarfe’s art, the best known of which was the graphic design and animated films associated with Pink Floyd’s The Wall, one of my favorites at the time. About the only thing I knew about Thompson at the time was that he was the inspiration for Duke in Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury. I liked both Duke and Doonebury a lot, and didn’t really want to muddy the waters with knowing anything about the truth behind them.
The first book I read by Thompson was The Curse of Lono, loaned to me by my friend Adam. As noted, the Steadman drawings for that book were what piqued my curiousity at first . . . until I got a few chapters into the thing, at which point I was hooked. I quickly went backwards and read Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. The last one was (and remains) my favorite, and it influenced my decision to major in Political Science, since it showed me a whole side of politics that I’d never imagined before then. I also adopted Thompson’s practice of signing his correspondence “HST” . . . I probably wouldn’t ever have used “JES” as a sign-off if I hadn’t seen him do that first. It seemed cool.
As I got older, I read Thompson less, and haven’t purchased any of his last few books. I’m not really sure why . . . I don’t know if it had to do with me changing or Thompson changing or (more likely) Thompson not changing. I can still read the classic books from the ’60s and ’70s and early ’80s, but his late ’80s and ’90s stuff left me cold for the most part. It felt more forced and shrill than the early stuff did. (Maybe Thompson felt that way too . . . maybe that contributed to his suicide, who knows?)
I also think it may have to do with the fact that I knew more about the things he wrote about in those days than I did when I read his earlier work. I had already formed my opinions, political and otherwise, so his work didn’t educate me as much as it did when I read about things that I had a lower level of knowledge about. I think another thing that got to me was the profusion of bad HST (and Lester Bangs, for that matter) clones and knockoffs in the journalism and literary world. Thompson made what he wrote seem easy, and loads of lesser lights tried to cop the gonzo style, but few (if any) of them succeeded. They proliferated, though, and collectively gave me an aversion to gonzo-style writing that, sadly, probably filtered back into my own appreciation of the master’s works.
All that having been said, though, it’s a tragedy when anyone takes their own life, particularly someone with as much influence as Thompson. I don’t like adding a tick mark of the roster of suffering writers and artists who chose suicide, since I worry that some of those other gonzo-imitators out there may see his death as a romantic gesture meriting imitation. It wasn’t, though. It was a sad end to a troubled life, and I hope in the long term people focus on the power and significance of what he did during his life, and not on the tragic way he chose to end it.
Rest in peace, HST. You certainly deserve it.