New Journalism’s Dark Prince
The suicide of Hunter S. Thompson, the best-selling writer who pioneered an extravagant form of participatory journalism famously labeled “gonzo,” brought to a sober close an era of print journalism rooted in the raucous 1960s.
Unlike other practitioners of the so-called New Journalism, Thompson, who died Sunday, was a full-fledged participant in his stories, which explored the dark recesses of the American dream.
Whether he was running with the Hells Angels to chronicle the biker lifestyle or creating genuine “fear and loathing” by running wild through Las Vegas, he wrote eloquent rants that were fueled not only by alcohol and the most potent hallucinogens of the day, but by the suspicions and sensibilities that undergirded the counterculture movement. He was its fierce and funny bard.
“He was the greatest comic writer in the English language in the 20th century,” Tom Wolfe, the icon of literary journalism to whom Thompson was often favorably compared, told The Times on Monday. “He not only wrote about but personified the wild personal freedom that began in the 1960s. He celebrated the druggie madness and soared with it .... He was something totally new in journalism and in literature.”
Gay Talese, another trailblazer of the New Journalism, said Thompson was a writer “of the moment.”
“He caught the fact that you could catch something of the [country’s] madness that wasn’t particularly historically important but was of the moment,” Talese told The Times. “He was one of the first writers of the ‘60s who was part of the literary celebrity culture who did his song and dance not to any particular rhythm but his own.”
Thompson took pride in being the wild man of American journalism.
“As a journalist, I somehow managed to break most of the rules and still succeed,” he told biographer William McKeen. “It’s a hard thing for most of today’s journeymen journalists to understand, but only because they can’t do it.”
Thompson, who was caricatured by cartoonist Garry Trudeau in the comic strip “Doonesbury” as the sleazy Uncle Duke and portrayed in movies by Johnny Depp and Bill Murray, died of a gunshot wound to the head at his 100-acre farm outside Aspen, Colo., on Sunday night. He was 67.
Joe di Salvo, director of investigations for the Pitkin County, Colo., Sheriff’s Department, said Monday that officials had no information on what might have led the writer to take his own life. Friends of Thompson said he had been in pain from back surgery and an artificial hip, but that they had observed no dramatic change in his behavior in the days before he killed himself.
“He lived longer than any of us expected already,” Rolling Stone magazine founder and Publisher Jann Wenner, alluding to the drugs and other excesses that had left the writer in poor physical health, said in a statement Monday.
Wenner, who helped seal Thompson’s reputation as an authentic voice of the counterculture when he granted him license to develop “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” as a Rolling Stone article, said Thompson was “part of [the magazine’s] DNA. I feel I’ve lost a brother in arms.”
Thompson established himself as an original voice with the 1966 publication of “Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga.” An investigative work for the Nation magazine that profiled the biker group from inside its outlaw ranks, it was later released as a book that became a runaway hit, selling more than 2 million copies.
Of his 18 books, the most famous was “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” published in 1972. Told through drug-hazed eyes, it was a tale of his trip to the fabled gambling town to cover a motorcycle race and a convention of drug enforcement officials.
The resulting story barely concerned either event but probed in depth a state of mind -- not just Thompson’s but that of a generation wistful for the freer-spirited decade just passed. He captured the heaviness of the mood in the phrase “fear and loathing,” which became part of the American vocabulary.
Eccentric would be too mild a term to describe the legendary journalist. When he gave guest lectures, “they weren’t really lectures,” said Wolfe, who was a friend and admirer. “They were happenings, whether Hunter was throwing a glass of whiskey through a window from the lectern or being at the lectern incoherent.”
At a book party several years ago, Thompson greeted guests, Wolfe included, by bonking them on the head with a fake mallet.
He blurred the line between fiction and reality not only in his writing but in his life. He was fond, for instance, of calling his home a “fortified compound,” which invoked images of barricades and barbed wire. Although he kept a dozen or more guns and enjoyed firing them, he generally shot at an array of iron gongs mounted on a hillside at his spread in Woody Creek, a few miles outside Aspen.
His farm was more refuge than fortress, a place where he grew palm trees in blue toilets and enjoyed the freedom to “load up on mescaline and turn my amplifier up to 110 decibels for a taste of ‘White Rabbit’ while the sun comes up on the snow-peaks along the Continental Divide.”
Born in Louisville, Ky., Thompson was the son of an insurance agent and a librarian. He began writing at age 10 for his own newspaper, for which he charged 4 cents a copy. At Louisville Male High School, he was a member of the city’s illustrious Athenaeum Literary Assn.
Later, in the U.S. Air Force during the mid- to late 1950s, he talked his way from a position as an electronics expert to that of a sports editor for the base newspaper, even though he was, he admitted in a letter to a friend, “no more qualified for a post like this than I am for the presidency of a theological seminary.”
He was honorably discharged in 1958 after a commanding officer noted that “his flair for invention and imagination” and “rebellious disregard for military dress and authority ... sometimes seem to rub off on the other airmen.”
Back in civilian life, he went to work as a freelance writer until 1959, when he landed a job as Caribbean correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. He hopped from there to the New York-based National Observer as its South American correspondent.
He quit the Observer after it rejected his glowing review of Wolfe’s soon-to-be-classic chronicle of the decade, “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.” In need of work, he returned to the U.S. in time for the launch of the psychedelic ‘60s, and soon became what one critic would call “the living historian of the counterculture.”
His break came when Carey McWilliams, editor of the Nation, hired him to write a story on the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley. It was McWilliams’ idea to tackle the Hells Angels next.
Thompson plunged in. He cycled up and down California with the notorious biker clan for a year and wrote an article published on May 17, 1965, that detailed their rallies, orgies and generally anarchic lifestyle. He portrayed them as “the first wave of a future that nothing in our history has prepared us to cope with,” the menacing vanguard of a movement that America would find morbidly fascinating.
“There is not much mental distance between a feeling of having been screwed and the ethic of total retaliation,” he wrote, “or at least the kind of random revenge that comes with outraging the public decency.”
His vivid, if conventionally written, account earned high praise as a work of sociology as much as journalism. Richard Elman, writing in New Republic, said that in the book based on the Nation piece, Thompson had “managed to correct many popular misconceptions about [the Angels], and in the process, provided his readers with a tendentious but informative participant-observer study of those who are doomed to lose.”
Historian Studs Terkel said Thompson’s language was “brilliant” and “his eye remarkable.” The New York Times praised it as “a close view of a world most of us would never encounter.”
His writing did not go “gonzo” until 1970, when he found himself up against a deadline for a story on the Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s Monthly magazine.
“I’d blown my mind, couldn’t work,” he recalled later in a Playboy interview. “So finally I just started jerking pages out of my notebook and numbering them and sending them to the printer. I was sure it was the last article I was ever going to do for anybody.”
When it was published, the kudos showered down. The article, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” was heralded as a breakthrough in journalism, and it brought the author a lasting epiphany.
“If I can write like this and get away with it,” he recounted to Playboy, “why should I keep trying to write like the New York Times? It was like falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool full of mermaids.”
Among the congratulatory messages he received after the Derby story appeared was one from writer Bill Cardoso, who commended the piece as “real Gonzo.” Thus was “gonzo journalism” born.
His success led him to Rolling Stone, the first publication “where I could write exactly what I felt,” Thompson said. Wenner was trying to broaden the scope of the magazine away from its narrow focus on rock and roll. Thompson proved to possess the moxie and cultural acuity that Wenner was seeking.
His landmark piece, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” began as an assignment to cover the Fourth Annual Mint 400 motorcycle desert race, but he combined it with another trip to Sin City to report on a national conference of district attorneys who prosecuted narcotics cases.
He created a form of buddy journalism, offering himself as a drug-crazed, outraged yet idealistic maverick named Raoul Duke and a companion in the form of a 300-pound Samoan attorney he called Dr. Gonzo (actually a Chicano attorney named Oscar Zeta Acosta). The article relates their adventures, at the heart of which swirl chemical highs and criminal antics.
The result was, according to National Observer critic Michael Putney, “a trip, literally and figuratively, all the way to bad craziness and back again ... the most brilliant piece of writing about the dope subculture since Tom Wolfe’s ‘Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.’ ”
Here, as in Thompson’s later writing, it was often difficult to tell where reality ended and invention began. He wrote in other venues over the years, including the San Francisco Examiner, where he was a media critic in the 1980s, and more recently for ESPN magazine.
He strayed into politics, running unsuccessfully for sheriff of Pitkin County. He also covered politics, writing Rolling Stone articles about the 1972 presidential race in which he made no effort to hide his preference for George McGovern over Richard M. Nixon, whom he described as “the werewolf in us, the bully, the shyster.” His articles became the basis for “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72.”
Thompson wrote plainly about many of his demons, but the ones that may have guided his hands on the barrel of a gun were not known.
According to biographer McKeen, Thompson imagined ending his life on a winding mountain road halfway between Louisville and Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
“My concept of death for a long time,” he told McKeen, “was to come down that mountain road at a hundred and twenty and just keep going straight right there, burst out through the barrier and hang out above all that ... and there I’d be sitting in the front seat, stark naked, with a case of whiskey next to me, and a case of dynamite in the trunk ... honking the horn, and the lights on, and just sit there in space for an instant, a human bomb, and fall down into that mess of steel mills. It’d be a tremendous goddamn explosion. No pain. No one would get hurt. I’m pretty sure, unless they’ve changed the highway, that launching place is still there. As soon as I get home, I ought to take the drive just to check it out.”
Thompson is survived by his wife, Anita; a son, Juan; and a grandchild.
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From Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:
A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream” (1972):
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive ...” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”
Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken off his shirt and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process. “What the hell are you yelling about?” he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses. “Never mind,” I said. “It’s your turn to drive.” I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red Shark toward the shoulder of the highway. No point mentioning the bats, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough.
Los Angeles Times
Books by Hunter S. Thompson
“Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga” (1966)
“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:
A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream” (1972)
“Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72" (1973)
“The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time; Gonzo Papers, Volume One” (1979)
“The Curse of Lono” (with Ralph Steadman) (1983)
“Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ‘80s; Gonzo Papers, Volume Two” (1988)
“Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream; Gonzo Papers, Volume Three” (1990)
“Silk Road: Thirty-Three Years in the Passing Lane” (1990)
“Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie; Gonzo Papers, Volume Four” (1993)
“The Proud Highway: The Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967" (1997)
“The Rum Diary: The Long Lost Novel” (1998)
“Screwjack and Other Stories” (2000)
“Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, 1968-1976" (2000)
“Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century” (2003)
“Hey Rube: Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness” (2004)
From Times Staff and Wire Reports