The Open Book: Hunter S Thompson

“As things stand now, I am going to be a writer. I’m not sure that I’m going to be a good one or even a self-supporting one, but until the dark thumb of fate presses me to the dust and says ‘you are nothing’, I will be a writer.”
from Gonzo.

The first time I read Hunter S Thompson was around twelve years ago. I’d been aware of him for ages, of course – Johnny Depp’s portrayal of him in the 1998 film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas looms large in the public consciousness, but like most who have seen the movie I’d never actually read any of his writings. So as I headed to Prague for a friend’s stag weekend, when I spotted a copy of the book Fear and Loathing on offer I decided on impulse to buy it. The weekend was a mess, as most stag weekends are. Between the early summer mornings meaning the sun had risen by the time we left the nightclubs, and the fact that I was nursing (unbeknownst to me at the time) three cracked ribs from a roller hockey incident a few weeks earlier, sleep was in short supply. By the morning we were flying back, I was a mental wreck compounded primarily of hangover, pain, and fatigue. On this brain I dumped Hunter’s potent mix of hallucinogenic experiences and raw experiential writing, and it may have been the best way to take it.

Hunter S Thompson and Oscar Acosta - headstuff.org
Hunter and Acosta, from the back cover of Fear and Loathing. Source.

The book was published in 1972, though it was a combination of two feature stories Hunter had written in 1971 for Rolling Stone. The first had originally started as a commission to write a photo caption for the pictures Sports Illustrated was taking of the Mint 400 motorcycle race in the Nevada desert. At the time Hunter was trying to write an article for Rolling Stone about the Mexican-American civil rights movement (later published under the title Strange Rumblings in Aztlan) so he decided to take his primary source on the story, Oscar Zeta Acosta, along on a roadtrip so the two could bond. At the time Hunter was experimenting in “gonzo journalism”, the strange field he invented where personal experience blends in with reporting, producing entirely subjective works. The phrase had been coined the year before to describe The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved, which had actually consisted of Hunter’s raw notes taken at the event. Essentially, he’d run out of time to write the piece and had just sent the pages from his notebook in, and it had turned out to be a success. He intended to do the same with the Vegas trip, but found himself unable to resist polishing it up into a fictionalised version (with Acosta’s name protected). [1] The captions were a bust, and Hunter’s article was “aggressively rejected” by Sports Illustrated, but the account of the bacchanalian trip (a drug-fuelled mess of an affair) was popular enough for Rolling Stone to send the two out again to cover the National District Attorneys Association’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. The book was a success, though critics weren’t entirely sure what to make of it. Even now, over forty years later, I don’t think any of us are.

“The only other important thing to be said about Fear & Loathing at this time is that it was fun to write, and that’s rare—for me, at least, because I’ve always considered writing the most hateful kind of work. I suspect it’s a bit like f*cking—which is fun only for amateurs. Old whores don’t do much giggling. Nothing is fun when you have to do it—over and over, again and again—or else you’ll be evicted, and that gets old.”
from The Great Shark Hunt

Nobody was ever sure what to make of Hunter, either. He was born in 1937 and brought up in a fairly well off family, but when he was a teenager his father died and the family were thrown into poverty. He was at odds with authority even then – he was sent to jail for 60 days as an accessory to robbery, though he denied the charge, and as a result his high school refused to let him graduate. He joined the Air Force in 1955 and was honorably discharged in 1958, essentially for being incapable of following orders or rules. As an example of that, though airmen were not allowed to take on outside work it was while he was in the Air Force that he landed his first professional writing gig. It was as a sports reporter, since sports in general had been his passion since he was young. Unsurprisingly, he found it hard to settle with any one paper, for example being fired from the Middletown Daily Record for picking a fight with an advertiser. He spent some time in Brazil, then returned to the US and got married in 1963. Eventually the couple settled in California, and it was here that he wrote his first published book, Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.

Hunter S Thompson - headstuff.org
A self-portrait from a 1967 article in Pageant, the year after he broke with the Angels.

As with Fear and Loathing, Hell’s Angels started as a magazine article on the notorious Californian outlaw biker gang. The article was popular enough, and the subject was topical enough, for Thompson to receive offers to write a book about the gang. He was fortunate enough to have a friend who was an ex-Angel, and so he was able to get fairly close to the gang. He spent a year and a half embedded with them, and managed to overcome their distrust of reporters in general, at least for a while. His writings reveal an emotional portrait of disaffected youth, with parallels drawn to barbarian hordes of times gone by. It’s not quite a sympathetic portrait – the violence and misogyny of the group is fully on display. [2] The centerpiece of the book is the Hells Angels 4th July outing to Bass Lake in California in 1965, which the media built up as certain to erupt in violence, but which in the end passed off relatively peacefully. A constant theme in Hunter’s writing about them is the tendency of Eastern newspapers, far away from California, to exaggerate stories involving the Angels to sell copy. Perhaps in reaction to this, he seemed to underestimate their menace – until Labour Day, 1966, when a group who felt that he had been taking advantage of them beat him badly enough to put him in hospital. Only the intervention of an Angel he had been friendly with saved his life. The book was published and did quite well, though the incompetence of Hunter’s agent meant that he saw little profit from it – ironic, given that the beating which severed his relationship with the gang was over a perception that the Angels weren’t getting their cut of his earnings.

““Frankly, I have no taste for either poverty or honest labor, so writing is the only recourse left me.”
from The Proud Highway.

Hunter did not repeat that mistake with Fear and Loathing, and it provided him with a level of financial stability. Ironically, this helped to finance the destruction of his personal life. Not immediately – the following year saw him covering the 1972 Presidential campaign in a series of articles for Rolling Stone that were novelised as Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72. The articles were notable for portraying the processes of decision making behind the political posturing and for their honest depiction of how the media coverage in itself created most of the stories on the trail. Another major component was Hunter’s hatred of Richard Nixon, who he would later describe as “evil in a way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the Devil can understand it”. The series and book proved to be the last success Hunter enjoyed that decade. In 1974 he was sent by Rolling Stone to cover “The Rumble In The Jungle”, but wound up missing the fight due to being drunk in his hotel room. The following year he was sent out to Vietnam to cover the final stages of the Vietnam War – arriving as most journalists were fleeing the country. Once there, he found that Rolling Stone had pulled the plug on the article and left him stranded in Saigon. The two experiences left Hunter and the magazine, always his best market, mutually estranged (though he would write for them again on the Clinton campaign in the ’90s).

Hunter continued to write – mostly columns, though he also made a few attempts at novels of varying success. He regained some prestige with his writing in the 1980s, after a perception in the back half of the 1970s that he was living off past glory. He wrote columns for several newspapers through the 1980s and 1990s. In 1994 an authorised biography called HUNTER: The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson was released. (It’s currently available for free online.) It was written by E. Jean Carroll, who went on to become one of America’s most famous advice columnists and who described a typical day’s routine for Hunter as:

3:00 p.m. rise
3:05 Chivas Regal with the morning papers, Dunhills
3:45 cocaine
3:50 another glass of Chivas, Dunhill
4:05 first cup of coffee, Dunhill
4:15 cocaine
4:16 orange juice, Dunhill
4:30 cocaine
4:54 cocaine
5:05 cocaine
5:11 coffee, Dunhills
5:30 more ice in the Chivas
5:45 cocaine, etc., etc.
6:00 grass to take the edge off the day
7:05 Woody Creek Tavern for lunch-Heineken, two margaritas, coleslaw, a taco salad, a double order of fried onion rings, carrot cake, ice cream, a bean fritter, Dunhills, another Heineken, cocaine, and for the ride home, a snow cone (a glass of shredded ice over which is poured three or four jig­gers of Chivas)
9:00 starts snorting cocaine seriously
10:00 drops acid
11:00 Chartreuse, cocaine, grass
11:30 cocaine, etc, etc.
12:00 midnight, Hunter S. Thompson is ready to write
12:05-6:00 a.m. Chartreuse, cocaine, grass, Chivas, coffee, Heineken, clove cigarettes, grapefruit, Dunhills, orange juice, gin, continuous pornographic movies.
6:00 the hot tub-champagne, Dove Bars, fettuccine Alfredo
8:00 Halcyon
8:20 sleep

Hunter S Thompson shaving Johnny Depp's head - headstuff.org
Image: Hunter shaving Johnny Depp’s head, in preparation for his role in Fear and Loathing. Source

The film version of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, released in 1998, brought Hunter to the attention of a new generation. The book was re-released, as was an unpublished novel named The Rum Diary that Johnny Depp discovered among his papers while researching his role as Hunter. Hunter had begun writing it 40 years earlier, but after it had been rejected several times he had filed it away. With these dual successes, Hunter began to enjoy some success once again, and his 2003 collection Kingdom of Fear rode the wave of this success. It combined older unpublished works (including his coverage of the US invasion of Grenada) with newer ruminations and some of his more recent work, along with autobiographical elements, and all contextualised in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. It was his last piece of published original work, though a collection of his ongoing sports column was published in 2004. In February 2005, suffering from longtime depression and chronic pain from a hip replacement, Hunter shot himself. He was 67 years old. Six months later his official funeral was held, with his ashes shot into the sky from a cannon atop a statue of a clenched fist that he’d designed 27 years earlier. It was what he’d wanted.

Banner via Rolling Stone.

[1] Acosta wanted to have his name changed back and his portrayal de-fictionalised in the book version, but there wasn’t enough time before it went to the presses. He disappeared in 1974 in Mexico, almost certainly murdered by drug dealers or political enemies.

[2] Whether Hunter was a misogynist is a tricky question to answer. The dismissal of women in most of his works is largely a product of writing styles at the time, but the tone of his portrayal of the sexual violence committed by members of the Angels has come in for a lot of criticism and makes for uncomfortable reading these days.

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