Jon wallows in sickly misery and nostalgia with Hunter S. Thompson as his only guide
I’ve had the dreaded lurgy for a week. Rugged up at home my companion has been Hunter S. Thompson’s brilliant anthology The Great Shark Hunt. His Nixon stuff remains incredibly powerful, even some 30 years after Tricky’s fall. Reading Thompson also made me wonder what he would have made of Obama’s elevation to the presidency. One imagines Hunter S. wouldn’t have been able to rise to the unique challenge that Obama represented. Thompson was hopelessly ravaged by the accumulated effects of far too much, for far too long, to make any meaningful sense of it.
You see, staggeringly, it’s already over three years since he ended it at Owl Farm in February 2005. A great American writer, Thompson dared to travel where others couldn't or wouldn't. The intensity of his writing perfectly matched his times back in the America of the 1960s and early 70s. No-one could touch him. His great friend, Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, believed that when Hunter heard that voice saying, “This is the way to do it,” he listened to it.
I also remembered meeting a guy in a bar in Oklahoma City in ’05. He told me his band played at Thompson’s funeral. Hunter was shot out of his self-designed canon while red, white and blue (and green) fireworks lit up the Colorado night. I had no idea whether any thing I was told that night was true but I do remember, after endless whiskey chasers, and toasts to Thompson, leaving more of myself on the streets of Oklahoma than I’d ever planned to.
Anyway, in my weakened state re-reading Hunter S. left me feeling hopelessly nostalgic, for no-one has been able to replicate Thompson’s high-voltage mix of raw analysis and even rawer psychological insight. So, here’s a piece I wrote at the time of his death, unpublished (by Granny Herald), but written before much of the brutal truth emerged about Thompson’s violent end:
“In Fear And Loathing on the Campaign trail ’72 Hunter S. Thompson describes a wild scene where a ‘serious, king-hell crazy’ character ends Democratic pretender Ed Muskie’s train-stop tour by grabbing at his suit pants, while waving an empty glass, all awhile yelling at the presidential hopeful, “Get your lying ass back inside and make me another drink, you worthless old fart.” Pure Hunter. S. – vivid, shocking, and totally absurdist.
Thompson’s rhythm logic took him to strange places – Las Vegas, Saigon, Chicago, and many points in between, but none weirder for Hunter than Washington, a city that gave him the type of high-energy fix that he needed to interpret that old swamp of power and ambition. Fear And Loathing on The Campaign Trail ranks alongside Theodore White’s ‘The Making of a President,’ the story of Jack Kennedy’s 1960 campaign, as the two standout presidential campaign books written in America during the past century.
Even stronger than this tour-de-force was the sustained rage that Thompson maintained during Nixon’s futile attempts to avoid impeachment, until such time as ‘Tricky Dicky’ finally realized his name was going to be forever synonymous with shame and failure. Hunter captured the zeitgeist with an intensity and clarity that mainstream journalists, for all sorts of reasons, simply wouldn’t or couldn’t reach. It was in riding Watergate’s raw and pulsating nerve that allowed Thompson to fully vent his disgust at America’s political system, in general, and Richard Nixon, in particular. I still cite tracts of Thompson’s powerful screeds against Nixon to my American politics class, including the following appraisal of the character flaw that Hunter thought drove Nixon inexorably towards his ultimate humiliation:
“For most of his life, the mainspring of Richard Nixon’s energy and ambition seems to have been a deep and unrecognized need to overcome, at all costs, that sense of having been born guilty – not for crimes or transgressions already committed, but for those he somehow sensed he was fated to commit as he grappled his way to the summit.”
And so much for all of that, as Hunter would say.
When asked a question about which epoch I would have most wished to have lived in I always give two answers: The first one points to the last days of the Roman Empire. The reasoning is pure enough: the game’s up, the barbarians are closing in on the gates and one is drawn to William Burroughs’ wicked insight that “there is no truth, anything is permissible.” Grapes, orgies, drinking binges and complete abandon have a certain primordial charm when one’s consciousness is seared with the certainty that there’s no tomorrow. My second choice turns to the United States during the sixties. The promise of something better, the music fuelling an ethereal sense of hope, an utter rejection of the status quo, the feeling that somehow the system could be changed for the better if the wave was big enough for long enough.
I put this to an American friend of mine years ago. He was shocked and appalled. He argued, rather, that my naïve cant didn’t mirror his or America’s reality, a long dark night in its history that was driven more by fear, insecurity, tragedy, and the sense that America’s compass was spinning uncontrollably around Vietnam, civil rights and race riots, violent student protests, and the assassinations of America’s best and brightest hopes. My friend had a point, one that Thompson understood on a visceral level of consciousness that translated vividly onto every page he wrote during that turbulent epoch. The American dream turned to unbearable nightmare as Hunter chronicled the fall.
It was once said about the philosopher Rousseau that he operated on the borderline between severe pathology and creative reassemblage of the self, that his own deep sense of not belonging perfectly matched the population at large. For a time, during the 1960s and 70s, Thompson perfectly embodied the fractured and troubled American polity. He stood outside, pissing in. His preference for the truth, surrealistic though Thompson’s was, fueled by an insatiable appetite for all manner of vices, but most particularly drugs of any and all description, produced writing that taught, bludgeoned, battered, and seared his version of the truth into his readers consciousness.
His writing, after that peak period, fell away badly. After pursuing a giant like Nixon, Thompson never wrote again with that fundamental yearning for the logic of a situation that drove him during a time when his dislocation and idealism matched that of many of his countrymen and women. Carter, Reagan, the decade of greed and even Clinton and George W. Bush saw a paler shade of Thompson. His heart was no longer in it, his conviction waning.
This brings me to news of his suicide. In 1964, Thompson traveled to Ketchum, Idaho, trying to understand why, after the romance of Havana, and the acclaim of his country, Hemingway secretly returned to an old isolated haunt to die at the end of his own shotgun. Thompson believed that Hemingway sought solace from a world that he could no longer see in its entirety. Ketchum was his last certainty after his connection with the zeitgeist was lost. Hemingway, in the winter of his life, came to see that he had also lost his conviction, for as Hunter wrote, “The power of conviction is a hard thing for any writer to sustain, and especially so once he becomes conscious of it.” Thompson ended an unusually insightful piece by writing, “So, finally, and for what he must have thought the best of reasons, he ended it with a shotgun.”
Perhaps, then, at Owl Farm in Colorado a couple of nights ago, another great American writer also squarely faced up to his own lost conviction. Much like one of his great inspirations, and for what he probably also saw as the best of reasons, he followed Hemingway to the grave.”
Postscript: Four days before he died Hunter wrote the following lines, which were later reproduced in Rolling Stone:
“No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun -- for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax -- This won't hurt.”