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Alexander Pope in a prose convertible

What mattered wasn't the 'gonzo' myth, writes PAUL WILLIAM ROBERTS, but Hunter S. Thompson's writing -- hilarious, honest and full of insight into power


Saturday, February 26, 2005 Updated at 10:51 PM EST

Hunter telephoned me on Feb. 19, the night before his death. He sounded scared. It wasn't always easy to understand what he said, particularly over the phone, he mumbled, yet when there was something he really wanted you to understand, you did. He'd been working on a story about the World Trade Center attacks and had stumbled across what he felt was hard evidence showing the towers had been brought down not by the airplanes that flew into them but by explosive charges set off in their foundations. Now he thought someone was out to stop him publishing it: "They're gonna make it look like suicide," he said. "I know how these bastards think . . ."

That's how I imagine a tribute to Hunter S. Thompson should begin. He was indeed working on such a story, but it wasn't what killed him. He exercised his own option to do that. As he said to more than one person, "I would feel real trapped in this life if I didn't know I could commit suicide at any time."

It is an ironic end for one who deplored above all things the media trend toward self-censorship, often citing Orwell on the subject. Now, he exists only in a dozen books and countless magazine and newspaper articles. Did the good doctor write himself into literary immortality? This is all that matters now.

I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between these two poles -- a restless idealism on the one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other -- that kept me going. -- Paul Kemp, in The Rum Diary, 1959 (published 1998)

These words, from Mr. Thompson's only novel, written when he was 22, are more than a prescient epitaph. They contain his own assessment of the qualities of character required of a great writer. The Hells Angels, in his first published book, put it differently: "Well, we don't ask for nothin' but the truth. Like I say, there's not much good that you can write about us, but I don't see where that gives people the right to just make up stuff. . . . Ain't the truth bad enough for 'em?" -- Hells Angels, 1965

That tension between restless idealism and impending doom characterized the postwar generation in America, living in the shadow of nuclear apocalypse and the ignominy of the Vietnam War and Watergate, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.. It was during this era that the American Dream of a true republic came unravelled and it was briefly possible to see through its glittering façade to where the corporate éminences grises pressed buttons and pulled strings. The sight profoundly disturbed both those who saw it and those caught, as it were, in the act. The latter vowed such a thing would never occur again. The former, mostly, tried to forget what they had seen. Hunter Stockton Thompson never forgot what he had seen. It informed everything, and his addiction to honesty in the telling of it is what will grant his work timeless relevance. That we even know of his other addictions is merely an example of that honesty.

Too much is made of Mr. Thompson as the pioneer of "gonzo" journalism. The form -- the writer as a central character in what he writes about -- is as old as writing itself. Even the idea of writing through the prism of a psychotropic drug goes back to antiquity. Innovation matters little in literature -- indeed, it is ultimately a distraction. What counts is writing quality.

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like, "I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive." And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: "Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?"

Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process. "What the hell are you yelling about?" he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses. "Never mind," I said. "It's your turn to drive." I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red Shark toward the shoulder of the highway. No point mentioning those bats, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough. -- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1972

It is one of the great openings in literature, setting a tone and pace hard to follow, yet often exceeded by the rest of the book, which in reality is a novel, not journalism at all. What Mr. Thompson perceived in late-20th-century literature was an essential dishonesty, where authors wrote about themselves and their acquaintances without consequences If the narrator or main character is yourself, then why not give him your name?

In a book like Fear and Loathing, one finds all the great themes of postwar writing -- anomie, being and nothingness, existential terror. But Mr. Thompson supersedes authors like Kafka, Sartre and Camus by instinctively grasping that their themes are personal and subjective and thus more powerfully -- not to mention more honestly -- handled as subjective non-fiction. He was not alone among American writers in seeing this, but where people like Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe were writing subjective narratives from an almost genteel distance, Mr. Thompson flung himself on the page the way Jackson Pollock flung paint on canvas.

Finding this kind of writing not just accepted but keenly embraced was, in his words, "like being thrown down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool of mermaids." Like Chaucer discovering he didn't have to write in Latin and thus had a whole new language to himself, the effect on Mr. Thompson's work was liberating.

He was not a novelist masquerading as a journalist. Fear and Loathing is only a novel by virtue of the fact that its subject is itself -- unlike his other books, no event is covered and no one is interviewed. Privately, he could deplore this emptiness, and found it all but impossible to translate it into a screenplay. Yet when it was published, you could divide the world into those who could dig HST and those who couldn't.

No other writer is more emblematic of that period. Mr. Thompson wrote for Rolling Stone, which in those days was an indie paper devoted to the true voice of the Sixties, music. But having Mr. Thompson as a fellow traveller on music's tour bus helped a generation in danger of turning its back on mainstream politics to channel the disgust and disillusionment brought to a head by Watergate more productively.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas paved the way for what is probably Mr. Thompson's greatest work, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, in which he covered the 1972 presidential elections that saw Richard Nixon re-elected and the confidence of liberal America sapped in a way only matched by last year's election. Once you read the savage, unforgiving portrait of Mr. Nixon in Campaign Trail, he ceased to be an object of fear; it seemed in no time at all he was in tears apologizing for Watergate on TV. Before long, a genuinely decent human being was president -- Jimmy Carter.

The other hallmark of Mr. Thompson's work is humour. He can make you piss your pants, roll on the floor, choke -- he's that kind of funny. Where I come from, they used to say that the bogeyman will go away only when you can laugh at him. First and foremost, Mr. Thompson was a satirist. He was Lenny Bruce in print, Alexander Pope in a prose convertible. His political invective and over-the-top style were a central influence on what proved to be the golden age of American humour -- the period when it was actually funny. The political sketches on shows like Saturday Night Live were frequently lifted straight from his Rolling Stone pieces.

Yet his own interest in politics was more pragmatic than is immediately obvious. He knew that the person who occupies the White House is the one who wants it most and is willing to do anything to get there. Decent men rarely make it. So it is a citizen's duty to play close attention to those jockeying for the position of chief executive.

The blandness of political writing when Mr. Thompson first began to publish was, in his eyes, part of the problem. Its fake objectivity permitted the most diabolical deeds to be recounted without comment, as if the writer had no opinion -- so the reader need not have one either. This style is still pervasive, lulling voters into believing politicians were all honourable men with the country's best interests at heart, instead of grasping greedy thugs.

Mr. Thompson was among the first to realize that the same corporations that owned the media also bankrolled the politicians. He had been to Oz and seen the nervous little man who was its wizard, and he never ceased to see the skull beneath a politician's smooth tanned skin.

For all of this, however, his political ideas were more libertarian than liberal. He was a frontiersman, a cowboy, believing in an individual's right to live any way he wished as long as it didn't interfere with the rights of others. A government's job was to stay out of the way. Terms such as "right" and "left" meant little to him. As a consequence, he numbered among his friends as many conservatives as he did liberals, finding as much to like about, say, Pat Buchanan as he did about Allen Ginsberg, and even finding Richard Nixon preferable to Bill Clinton.

To my mind, it was a political stance firmly planted in the soil of the American Founding Fathers, and in common sense. As such, it is something we could do with a lot more of, both there and here.

Besides obvious exceptions such as P.J. O'Rourke, Mr. Thompson's influence is, I fear, doomed to be minimal, if only for the reason that, to editors, the term "gonzo" means outrageously inflated expense accounts and a piece they can't use. All the same, his work did help to loosen the moribund print medium's reliance on a spurious objectivity and its fears that subjective reporting meant fictionalizing. His accessibility to experience certainly emboldened people like myself.

When you're within the events you describe, you cannot help but influence them. And if the subject is volatile, like the war in Iraq, no writer is going to be without a strong opinion about what he sees. It seems only natural to tell the story as it actually occurred, as I did when I wrote about getting caught up in looting in Baghdad during the invasion of Iraq. As I have always said to those who think I'm fictionalizing: Come along next time and see for yourself. Nothing can ever be stranger than the truth.

Mr. Thompson's unerring instinct for spotting political bullshit never left him. But disillusionment set in when Ronald Reagan was elected president. He had nothing but scorn for so-called Reaganomics: " 'Trickle-Down' means that when the pots of the rich are filled they'll overflow and the rest of us will be so hungry we'll be content to feed on their scraps . . ."

He could see the difference between faux conservatism and real conservatism, just as he was quick to disown liberals he believed phony, such as Mr. Clinton. In general, anyone intent on making more rules or increasing the sizes of bureaucracies, whether Democrat or Republican, was the Enemy. His fondness for guns and drugs -- exaggerated by himself as much as by others -- were really just emblems of his belief in his rights as a citizen -- rights that, some might say, he died defending.

In his later years, like many Americans, he found it hard to reconcile the fact that much of the country existed in all-but-feudal conditions of toil and ignorance with his own relative prosperity and enlightenment. A Southerner by birth and a gentleman at heart, Mr. Thompson believed above all else in the freedom of the individual. He just could not understand why that freedom was expended on voting for someone intent on ending it, nor how that freedom also translated into the right of big corporations to strangle politics. We didn't vote for these cheap, greedy little killers who speak for America today -- and we will not vote for them again in 2002. Or 2004. Or ever. Who does vote for these dishonest shitheads? -- Kingdom of Fear, 2003

With the advent of George W. Bush, who brought with him the most reactionary elements from the Reagan administration, Mr. Thompson was all but lost for words. He was able to see the further betrayal of conservatism the new regime entailed, and bemoaned the fact of a prosperous peaceful country turned back into a debtor nation at war.

Yet his sense of fun had deserted him. He forgot his own maxim: "When things get weird, the weird turn pro." If Fear and Loathing, and the general sense of times being so out of joint you couldn't make it up, had effectively killed the American novel, then Mr. Thompson's reclusion and the sense of times getting too weird to be believed could have augured well for a new Thompson novel. It turned out to be a film he was trying to develop, Polo Is My Life. I don't think we'll miss it.

"I think Thompson has remained a writer of significance because, essentially a satirist, he displayed utter contempt for power -- political power, financial power, even showbiz juice," novelist Paul Theroux wrote in 2003. It is hard to imagine Mr. Thompson compromising that contempt by peddling a mediocre love-goes-sour story to Hollywood studios even more venal than Washington politicians.

Yet the fact that he knew he could no longer write about politics shows he still understood where he was at as a writer. He left this world with no illusions.

Goodbye, Doc. We'll not see your like again.

Paul William Roberts's latest book is A War Against Truth: An Intimate Account of the Invasion of Iraq.

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