As Gonzo in Life as in His Work
Hunter S. Thompson died as he lived.
BY TOM WOLFE
Opinion Journal, Tuesday, February 22, 2005
Hunter S. Thompson was one of those rare writers who come as advertised. The Addams-family eyebrows in Stephen King’s book jacket photos combined with the heeby-jeeby horrors of his stories always made me think of Dracula. When I finally met Mr. King, he was in Miami playing, along with Amy Tan, in a jook-house band called the Remainders. He was Sunshine itself, a laugh and a half, the very picture of innocent fun, a Count Dracula who in real life was Peter Pan. Carl Hiaasen, the genius who has written such zany antic novels as “Striptease,” “Sick Puppy,” and “Skinny Dip” is in person as intelligent, thoughtful, sober, courteous, even courtly, a Southern gentleman as you could ask for (and I ask for them all the time and never find them). But the gonzo–Hunter’s coinage–madness of Hunter Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1971) and his Rolling Stone classics such as “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” (1970) was what you got in the flesh too. You didn’t have lunch or dinner with Hunter Thompson. You attended an event at mealtime.
I had never met Hunter when the book that established him as a literary figure, “The Hell’s Angels, a Strange and Terrible Saga,” was published in 1967. It was brilliant investigative journalism of the hazardous sort, written in a style and a voice no one had ever seen or heard before. The book revealed that he had been present at a party for the Hell’s Angels given by Ken Kesey and his hippie–at the time the term was not “hippie’ but “acid-head”–commune, the Merry Pranksters. The party would be a key scene in a book I was writing, (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). I cold-called Hunter in California, and he generously gave me not only his recollections but also the audiotapes he had recorded at that first famous alliance of the hippies and “outlaw” motorcycle gangs, a strange and terrible saga in itself, culminating in the Rolling Stones band hiring the Angels as security guards for a concert in Altamont, Calif., and the “security guards” beating a spectator to death with pool cues.
By way of a thank you for his help, I invited Hunter to lunch the next time he was in New York. It was one bright spring day in 1969. He proved to be one of those tall, rawboned, rangy young men with alarmingly bright eyes, who more than any other sort of human, in my experience, are prone to manic explosions. Hunter didn’t so much have a conversation with you as speak in explosive salvos of words on a related subject.
We were walking along West 46th Street toward a restaurant, The Brazilian Coffee House, when we passed Goldberg Marine Supply. Hunter stopped, ducked into the store and emerged holding a tiny brown paper bag. A sixth sense, probably activated by the alarming eyes and the six-inch rise and fall of his Adam’s apple, told me not to ask what was inside. In the restaurant he kept it on top of the table as we ate. Finally, the fool in me became so curious, he had to go and ask, “What’s in the bag, Hunter?”
“I’ve got something in there that would clear out this restaurant in 20 seconds,” said Hunter. He began opening the bag. His eyes had rheostated up to 300 watts. “No, never mind,” I said. “I believe you! Show me later!” From the bag he produced what looked like a small travel-size can of shaving foam, uncapped the top and pressed down on it. There ensued the most violently brain-piercing sound I had ever heard. It didn’t clear out The Brazilian Coffee House. It froze it. The place became so quiet, you could hear an old-fashioned timer clock ticking in the kitchen. Chunks of churasco gaucho remained impaled on forks in mid-air. A bartender mixing a sidecar became a statue holding a shaker with both hands just below his chin. Hunter was slipping the little can back into the paper bag. It was a marine distress signaling device, audible for 20 miles over water.
The next time I saw Hunter was in June of 1976 at the Aspen Design Conference in Aspen, Colo. By now Hunter had bought a large farm near Aspen where he seemed to raise mainly vicious dogs and deadly weapons, such as the .357 magnum. He publicized them constantly as a warning to those, Hell’s Angels presumably, who had been sending him death threats. I invited him to dinner at a swell restaurant in Aspen and a performance at the Big Tent, where the conference was held. My soon-to-be wife, Sheila, and I gave the waitress our dinner orders. Hunter ordered two banana daiquiris and two banana splits. Once he had finished them off, he summoned the waitress, looped his forefinger in the air and said, “Do it again.” Without a moment’s hesitation he downed his third and fourth banana daiquiris and his third and fourth banana splits, and departed with a glass of Wild Turkey bourbon in his hand.
When we reached the tent, the flap-keepers refused to let him enter with the whiskey. A loud argument broke out. I whispered to Hunter. “Just give me the glass and I’ll hold under my jacket and give it back to you inside.” That didn’t interest him in the slightest. What I failed to realize was that it was not about getting into the tent or drinking whiskey. It was the grand finale of an event, a happening aimed at turning the conventional order of things upside down. By and by we were all ejected from the premises, and Hunter couldn’t have been happier. The curtain came down for the evening.
ÔøºIn Hunter’s scheme of things, there were curtains¬..¬. and there were curtains. In the summer of 1988 I happened to be at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland one afternoon when an agitated but otherwise dignified, silver-haired old Scotsman came up to me and said, “I understand you’re a friend of the American writer Hunter Thompson.”
I said yes.
“By God–your Mr. Thompson is supposed to deliver a lecture at the Festival this evening–and I’ve just received a telephone call from him saying he’s in Kennedy Airport and has run into an old friend. What’s wrong with this man? He’s run into an old friend? There’s no possible way he can get here by this evening!”
“Sir,” I said, “when you book Hunter Thompson for a lecture, you have to realize it’s not actually going to be a lecture. It’s an event–and I’m afraid you’ve just had yours.”
Hunter’s life, like his work, was one long barbaric yawp, to use Whitman’s term, of the drug-fueled freedom from and mockery of all conventional proprieties that began in the 1960s. In that enterprise Hunter was something entirely new, something unique in our literary history. When I included an excerpt from “The Hell’s Angels” in a 1973 anthology called “The New Journalism,” he said he wasn’t part of anybody’s group. He wrote “gonzo.” He was sui generis. And that he was.
Yet he was also part of a century-old tradition in American letters, the tradition of Mark Twain, Artemus Ward and Petroleum V. Nasby, comic writers who mined the human comedy of a new chapter in the history of the West, namely, the American story, and wrote in a form that was part journalism and part personal memoir admixed with powers of wild invention, and wilder rhetoric inspired by the bizarre exuberance of a young civilization. No one categorization covers this new form unless it is Hunter Thompson’s own word, gonzo. If so, in the 19th century Mark Twain was king of all the gonzo-writers. In the 20th century it was Hunter Thompson, whom I would nominate as the century’s greatest comic writer in the English language.
COURTESY JOHN COULTHART!