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.