Journalism’s lord of misrule: the gonzo philosophy of Hunter S Thompson

Who Killed Hunter S Thompson? is a big and beautiful compendium of friends’ reminiscences of the infamous writer.

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Our culture’s best-known writers are not always those who write the best books, but rather those who live the noisiest lives. Over the past half century, nobody has played the role of renegade artist more fiercely and unapologetically than Hunter S Thompson, who began his career in the Sixties with a notable book of journalism about the Hell’s Angels, and went on to produce two very funny works of “gonzo” journalism (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72).

At his best, Thompson dived into American mayhem and reported what he saw – a chaotic, senseless war of cops, power, money and delusional advertisements for political candidates, Las Vegas showrooms and assault rifles. In Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, his hallucinogen-driven vision almost perfectly reflected the madness of America in 1968-1972, when politics was being waged in the streets. At both the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and the 1972 Republican Convention in Miami, Thompson was there:

…the Nixon convention in Miami was not even in the same league with Chicago in ’68. The blinding stench of tear gas brought back memories…  Around midnight on Wednesday I found myself reeling around completely blind on Washington Avenue in front of the convention hall, bumping against cops wearing black rubber masks and running after demonstrators clutching wet towels over their faces… Finally, when the gas got so bad that I no longer knew what direction I was moving in, I staggered across somebody’s lawn and began feeling my way along the outside of the house until I came to a water faucet. I sat down on the grass and soaked my handkerchief under the tap, then pressed it on my face, without rubbing, until I was able to see again. When I finally got up, I realised that at least a dozen cops had been standing within 20 feet of me the whole time, watching passively and not offering any help – but not beating me into a bloody, screaming coma, either.

In his best journalism, it’s often hard to distinguish between lucid reports of actual events and his wildest hallucinations. For Thompson, there was a special benefit to choosing the drug you used when reporting a particular experience – whether it was a presidential campaign, or a sequin-fraught Debbie Reynolds stage-show, or a convention of boozy district attorneys watching propaganda flicks about the dangers of marijuana. Drugs could either help you comprehend the madness or maintain your sanity. Gonzo journalism wasn’t simply about getting the insane facts right. It was about enduring them.

Eventually, Thompson grew so famous for his shoot-from-the-hip, pharmacologically-driven rants against the likes of Richard Nixon, uptight hotel managers, overbearing cops, and kiss-ass fellow-journalists, that he never produced another sustained piece of reportage, wasting his final decades pumping out well-paid weekly columns for newspapers and sports magazines. As the quality and intensity of his work diminished into manifold rumours about his notorious lifestyle, Thompson just kept growing more famous; his books joined the curriculum of the middle-class universities he professed to despise; and he was ritually celebrated as a “great writer” on late-night talk shows, where he wobbled around in his iconic Hawaiian shirt, with a half-full bucket-cocktail in one hand, and his trademark cigarette filter in the other.

When his comic alter ego, “Raoul Duke, weapons consultant”, became a recurring character in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip, Thompson suffered one of the worst things that can happen to a good writer: he became a caricature of himself. His image adorned ads for TarGard Permanent Cigarette Filters. (“For one thing, it is not a holder. It is a filter. A big difference.”) His Fear and Loathing persona could be purchased on HalloweenCostumes.com, and he even let himself be filmed drunkenly blowing things up with high-powered weaponry while knocking back cocktails. Then, sometime in the early Noughties, it all stopped being funny. Especially to Thompson.

In February 2005, Thompson’s suicide note sounded like a pull-quote from one of his columns:

The Football Season Is Over. 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…

He drew a smiley face at the bottom of the page, picked up one of the numerous weapons lying around his cabin in Woody Creek, Colorado, and shot himself in the head. Later, his numerous devoted friends (including Johnny Depp, John Kerry, Sean Penn, Benicio del Toro and Bill Murray) shot his ashes into the sky with a cannon.

After reading this big, dense, and beautifully produced tribute to the life and death of America’s only true “gonzo” journalist (Thompson coined the term, with his friend Bill Cardoso, to signify stories where the reporter’s perception of events was more important than the story itself), it is clear that Thompson was well loved. An irrevocably lapsed Irish Catholic, he was discharged from the Air Force in 1957 for his “rebel and superior attitude”, and went on being summarily discharged from numerous jobs and commissions. Then, in New York City, he befriended John G Clancy, who provides one of the lengthiest and most devoted remembrances in this volume:

Over the years people have asked me what kind of guy Hunter was. Usually I would answer that he was a loyal long-time friend and a great writer. I didn’t add that he was also a courageous fucker who never held back and always stood up and fought. I didn’t add that he was whip-smart, would argue on a dime, and kick your ass if you stood in his way.

The book’s title – Who Killed Hunter Thompson? – is essentially rhetorical, since nobody could have infiltrated Thompson’s arsenal without Hunter’s well-armed consent (although he did make claims before his death that he might be “suicided” for exposing a secret conspiracy related to the World Trade Center attack). But even after reading these numerous glowing tributes – assembled by the late magazine editor Warren Hinckle, who in 1970 first paired Thompson with the illustrator Ralph Steadman – it is still hard to understand why anyone would want anything to do with the guy. In fact, listening to them all chucklingly reminisce, it often feels like arriving late to a party where everybody is beautifully stoned except you. They get the jokes; but you don’t get any of them. And the jokes keep coming for hundreds of pages.

For example, several contributors recall Thompson’s great “sense of fun”, exhibited by the pranks he pulled, such as playing the recorded “screams of a wounded pig” through a megaphone one night in the direction of Jack Nicholson and his frightened children, or igniting sticks of dynamite under beer kegs, or spraying unsuspecting people with Mace. During a Manhattan restaurant lunch with fellow “New Journalist” Tom Wolfe, he tried to “clear” the place with a “marine distress signalling device, audible for 20 miles over water”. Then, of course there was the hilarious time he blasted his long-time female assistant in the middle of the night with a shotgun, and she had to be taken to the Emergency Room. For years afterward, he enjoyed telling people: “Have you noticed how no one comes to the door unannounced since I shot Deborah?” Ha ha. 

Then there was his delightfully anarchic affection for trashing motel rooms that he didn’t have to clean, or insulting waiters in restaurants. “Hey you! I’m talking to you! Bug-eyed motherfucker! What are you staring at?” What a “perfect Southern gentleman,” as one dear friend recalls. Several times in this book, yesterday’s anarchic madman looks like someone who might today merit a #MeToo Twitter stream.

Thompson was a smart, funny writer; and even near the end of his life, he could still spot the new truths early (he just couldn’t always spot them in himself). Shortly after 9/11, he wrote his most prescient words ever:

We are At War now – with somebody – and we will stay at war with that strange and mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives. It will be a Religious War, a sort of Christian Jihad, fuelled by religious hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides. It will be guerilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines, and no identifiable enemy…

Based on these fond reflections of his friends and co-workers, Thompson may not have been a very reliable person, but he was often a reliable and remorseless ob-server of what has long prevented America from being great. 

Who Killed Hunter S Thompson?
Edited by Warren Hinckle
Last Gasp, 529pp, £39.95

This article appears in the 04 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, What Marx got right