My wife and I moved into a new home nearly eight years ago, and, from the beginning, she wanted to turn the family room into a flamingo room, built around a prized Audubon print. Until we could afford it, we used the room as a crammed office and instead hung a favorite wedding gift -- a framed “Thompson for Sheriff” poster.
The “Thompson” was Hunter S. Thompson, the self-indulgent and idiosyncratically gifted brat of American journalism. The poster -- a red, inexplicably two-thumbed fist holding a bluish peyote cactus and flower -- came from Thompson’s 1970 quixotic campaign in Aspen, Colo., near where he shot himself to death Sunday night.
For journalists of a certain age (I’ll be 47 in a few weeks), Thompson was something of a dark role model. He took the near-religious embrace of objectivity in journalism and sinned at every turn, a heretic who never got tied to the stake. And he made it work. His 1967 book “Hell’s Angels,” a trip that no other journalist could have taken, established the voice, a rambling but direct flow of words that felt like a beat poem, like Kerouac was back on the road.
“The Menace is loose again, the Hell’s Angels, the hundred-carat headline, running fast and loud on the early morning freeway, low in the saddle, nobody smiles, jamming crazy through traffic and ninety miles an hour down the center stripe missing by inches ... like Genghis Khan on an iron horse, a monster steed with a fiery anus, flat out through the eye of a beer can and up your daughter’s leg with no quarter asked and none given.”
Thompson was just warming up. In 1971, he published “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream,” a delightfully frenetic and drug-fueled account of a convention of district attorneys in Sin City. I haven’t read the book since college but remember from that first reading being stunned by Thompson’s ability to build a book around an event he never quite seemed to have gotten to, waylaid by his own distractions.
Then came “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72,” which, as a post-Watergate journalist and political junkie, was the first Thompson book I read. (There was something fitting about the reverse order in which I tackled Thompson’s three best works, upending the upender.) Thompson’s campaign trail coverage, delivered biweekly through Rolling Stone and then recast as a book, was his step into the mainstream. Or maybe the mainstream swerved closer to his little swamp on the fringe, thrilling the tourists with a look at the dangerous crocodile with the thin cigarette, cap and sunglasses.
Surely this was the way to paint the world -- in broad personal sweeps, fed by irrelevance and excess, a hedonist’s trip through time.
Thompson’s later work consisted of memoir -- 2003’s “Kingdom of Fear” -- and collections of columns. In recent years he wrote pieces for ESPN.com, which were collected in a book released last year to little notice. He wrote occasional pieces for Rolling Stone on the 2004 election but never seemed to have left the house, issuing pronouncements from the mount in Woody Creek, Colo.
The work was missing the visceral engagement that had once propelled him. Rather, the visceral was still there; the engagement had gone and Thompson read more like he was role-playing than actually paying attention. It was as though his time had passed and he knew it but took the approach, “What the hell, if they still want to pay me for this stuff....”
But in his early work, Thompson blended rebellion with insight, his irreverence based on keen analysis. He brought the street energy of the ‘60s into the heart of American journalism and politics. Lord knows how many arguments he launched between far-flung editors and reporters trying to add a little “gonzo” voice to their local school board meeting story.
By the time of the 1972 campaign between incumbent President Nixon and Sen. George McGovern, post-election books had become a cottage industry. Theodore White’s “The Making of the President” about the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon race was the first, a respectful and cleanly detailed look back at how the election had transpired.
Tim Crouse and Thompson both took the form along different, and deeper, tangents. Thompson’s was a brilliant psychotic take on the elections. Crouse’s “The Boys on the Bus” looked at the journalists -- including Thompson -- who were covering it. In my memory of the book, Crouse wrote about a vote showdown at the Democratic National Convention in Miami in which a young Gary Hart engineered a floor-vote victory by McGovern that was so confusing that nearly every journalist in the country misread it as a McGovern defeat.
Two who got it right: R.W. “Johnny” Apple for the New York Times, and Thompson. But with Thompson’s biweekly deadlines for Rolling Stone, few people knew.
It might not have been much of a lesson for Thompson, but it was for me, with its indictment of pack journalism and the sense of the presumptiveness that can sometimes skew journalists’ vision. And it was a lesson that the mainstream sometimes gets it wrong, the fringe sometimes gets it right, and that the only proper course -- in journalism and life -- is to question yourself and authority.
And, in the end, to question Thompson as well. I saw Thompson in person only once, at a reading about 20 years ago in Rochester, N.Y. It was a classic show. Thompson came out looking as though he’d rather be down at the skid row bar next to the bus station and sat down alone at a center-stage table, an ice bucket, glass and pitcher of water at his elbow. Some college kid bounded up from the audience and made a show of presenting Thompson with a gift: a virgin fifth of Jack Daniels.
The audience laughed and applauded and Thompson rose to the occasion, cracking open the bottle and mixing himself a series of bourbon-and-ices as he delivered his lecture. He took some questions as he became increasingly unsteady, then toddled off stage. It wasn’t until we were leaving that my wife (then girlfriend) pointed out that Thompson kept mixing drinks and raising the glass to his lips, but that he never drank, instead dumping the booze in the ice bucket as he mixed a fresh one. It didn’t dawn on me until then that the kid with the bottle was a plant.
It was theater. Entertaining and insightful, but in the end Thompson was playing a role.
A couple of years ago, we finally got around to converting the backroom into a flamingo room and in the shuffle of artworks and mementos, the Thompson poster was stuffed away in a closet as a nod to presumed maturity.
The flamingos reflect our love of kitsch, but the room has a more planned feel now. Faux-wood floors instead of the stained carpet that was there when we moved in. Looks nice, I have to admit. But it might be time to pull that Thompson poster back out and find a spot for it somewhere. As a touchstone it can seem dated. But the past in many ways defines who we are. The times have changed, and so have we. Not so much, though, that we don’t still question authority. And ourselves.