I suppose everyone has their Hunter Thompson story. I suppose everyone’s Hunter Thompson story is boring. From a quick run through the links on memeorandum, it looks as though everyone is: a) expressing shock and/or no shock; and b) using the word “brilliant.”

So I guess I shouldn’t do that.

Here’s my boring Hunter Thompson testimony: In many ways, HST is the reason I’m a writer today, and I say that as someone who was appalled by much of his later work, and by “later” I mean “everything after the ’72 campaign book, with the exception of his coverage of the Pulitzer divorce trial.” (I can still remember a single line from the latter piece, and trot it out whenever it seems appropriate: “Servants are the Achilles’ heel of the rich. It’s hard to find a maid smart enough to make a bed but too stupid not to wonder why it’s full of naked people every morning.”)

I guess that means HST peaked before 40, not an uncommon story, and spent the rest of his career coasting. So be it. But still, I feel as though I owe him respect, and here’s why: At a time when a succession of mediocre teachers had convinced me writing was all about Topic Sentences, Thesis Paragraphs and the rest of it, “Hell’s Angels” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” came along to teach something else — that it could also be fun. This was something I needed to learn at precisely that moment, and maybe I would have learned it from some other nouveau journalist, but Thompson’s the one I learned it from, and so.

That’s not to say, I hasten to add, that topic sentences aren’t important, too. As I’ve tried to explain, with virtually no success, to eager-beaver HST wannabes whose copy came under my blue pencil: It’s not about the drugs. It’s not about the attitude, even. It’s about the technique, and you can’t master the technique until you know the rules you’re breaking. John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” is great in part because it started as Julie Andrews’ song. Thompson’s journalism was great because of the hidebound journalism that came before it, the just-didn’t-get-it crowds of reporters who looked at something they didn’t understand — motorcycle gangs, drug culture — and tried to cover it the way they covered city council and political conventions.

I recall reading that one way Thompson built his writing skills was to open a book by, say, William Faulkner to a random page and just start transcribing the prose, hoping some of the rhythms would find their way to his fingers. This was not a man who thought rules were stupid. He just bent them to his will, which is what great writers do.

Besides, to me, the best parts of his best work are the not the I-was-so-wasted parts, but the relatively straight reporting — the description of the sound system and program at the district attorneys’ convention; the deep American roots of motorcycle culture. That stuff will last.

Posted at 9:31 am in Uncategorized |

10 responses to “HST, RIP.”

  1. Lex said on February 21, 2005 at 11:46 am

    As will the body of his work on Richard Nixon. In fact, that might be his greatest contribution.

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  2. ashley said on February 21, 2005 at 5:03 pm

    Will we ever forget these legendary quotes?

    “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”

    “As your attorney, I advise you to begin drinking heavily”

    “The only thing that really worried me was the ether”

    “And then, wafting in on the breeze, will come the scent of dried blood, semen, and human grease”

    “Time is running out. We must both do something monstrous before we die”

    I agree wholeheartedly with Nance. He got lazier, but then, who doesn’t. I probably do not want to believe that he offed himself, but since he was so skilled with firearms, it had to be on purpose.

    Also, I agree with Nance on the idea that you need to know the rules to break the rules. This explains: HST, Picasso, Dali, Einstein, Scorsese. It also explains those who do not know the rules before they try to break them: The entire NBA, Jeff Gannon, most of my students…

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  3. Danny said on February 21, 2005 at 9:52 pm

    I never read HST. Having read my share of Kerouac and Burroughs, I was burnt out early on his contemporaries and just never got around to giving HST a try. But I did read an obituary that gave the opening line from “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” What a great line.

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  4. Dave Reilly said on February 21, 2005 at 10:32 pm


    Kerouac and that gang was a half a generation and something of a world away from Thompson. The Beats were overgrown children playing at being degenerates…except for Burroughs who was still an overgrown child but a real degenerate. Thompson was a grown up in full throttle self-destruct. It’s a much more interesting spectacle. You should read some more of his work.

    What’s fun, or what was fun for me, was to read Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail and Timothy Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus side by side.

    Hell’s Angels, by the way, is a very straight forward piece of journalism, very different from what followed, and it’s weird to read at the end how he seems to have decided to walk away from the craziness he was really about to throw himself into with abandon.

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  5. basset said on February 21, 2005 at 10:47 pm

    The best thing he could have done would have been to shut the hell up and go home to Louisville after the second “Fear and Loathing.” After that, well, the brilliant and legendary HST became more of a bad cartoon of himself with every sloppy, underprepared, repetitive book and off-the-top-of-his-head newspaper column; you can only get away with that for awhile and he played it way, waaay too long.

    Better to have dropped off the circuit, gotten a straight job and never written another word, that would have left the legend intact. The way things played out, he spent the last thirty years or so going from clown to pitiful, which is no way to remember anyone.

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  6. basset said on February 21, 2005 at 10:49 pm

    and did you notice… that the AP story which ran in USA Today got his quote on Nixon wrong? They attributed that line about “dark, venal” and so forth to NIXON, talking about Thompson.

    which he might have been amused by, I guess.

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  7. ashley said on February 21, 2005 at 11:19 pm

    BTW, “The Curse of Lono” is perfect…HST at his most bizarre, with Ralph Steadman illustrations on just about every page.

    “Generation of Swine” was, otoh, phoned in.

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  8. Danny said on February 22, 2005 at 10:49 am

    True, Dave. I just lump them together because of the similar lifestyles and loose prose styles. Kesey I would include too.

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  9. mary said on February 22, 2005 at 1:19 pm

    I was taking a lot of journalism courses at a college in Colorado right about when HST was peaking. Lots of my fellow students made horrible attempts to write that way, really cringeworthy. He came to speak at the school, and it was memorable. He had self medicated pretty heavily before the speech, but that didn’t diminish the experience for his audience.

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  10. deb said on February 22, 2005 at 9:47 pm

    anybody remember the piece he wrote for rolling stone about the roxanne pulitzer divorce trial? god, that was priceless. i kept it for a long, long time. never got tired of re-reading it.

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