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A Tribute to Hunter S. Thompson: A World to Fear and Loathe More


A Tribute to Hunter S. Thompson: A World to Fear and Loathe More

Three books changed my life. George Orwell’s 1984, Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Three books changed my life. George Orwell’s 1984, Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Each one of them tore into my adolescent self like a psychological force nine gale intent upon the savage reconstruction of my mental landscape. They ripped up my puerile preconceptions and scattered them across the well-kept lawns of polite convention. Through them I saw how the world was a much harsher place than I had ever realised, where truth had no currency, where madness stalked the most gifted of minds and where irony didn’t have to be a bi-product of an absence of belief.

Thompson came to fascinate me. His image, be-hatted and be-sunglassed, with the ever constant smoke holder, the penchant for drugs and the house full of guns, was seductive in its combination of unhinged outlaw and rebellious intellectual. What appealed to me was that Thompson seemed outside of any class or social group. Unlike Orwell, who was educated at Eton, or Pirsig, who was an academic, Thompson didn’t, at least to my imagination, have anything to do with an elite. Ok so he was a part of what came to be called the counter-culture but to me he was the natural outsider, the born iconoclast, the man most likely to give a two-fingered salute to any scared cow if he believed it deserved it. He served not the needs of a particular constituency but his own conscience. He had the balls, the wit and the anger to tell it as he saw it.

Thompson was a product of a culture constantly in a process of self-perpetuation. He railed against the pedalling of the myth of America, a myth given regular sustenance through innumerable Presidential speeches and triumph-against-the-odds Hollywood films. He spat bile at the Waltons-world image of apple pie Americana. He saw the Dream for what any dream is: a product of a mind at rest. And he knew how troubled that mind was. He placed himself, or, at the very least, versions of himself, at the centre of his stories, not because of the modern vanity of those journalists who believe readers want to know how they felt when their last love affair crashed into the rocks, but because he understood that the only way to be truly objective and arrive at the heart of things, is to be gloriously subjective, to tell stories from the gut, to capture their essence, to live breathe and sweat the words on to the page. He saw traditional journalistic objectivity for what it was: a straight jacket, a convention. It didn’t matter if events did not happen as they were set out in his books because his books demand to be read in a different way. Yet when Fear and Loathing came out it fixed forever in the minds of his readers, the image of Thompson as the wildman of words, an on the edge hell-raiser, popping pills and seeing the world through wide-pupilled eyes, his image distorted, dilated and Dante-like. Many responses to this book miss the point. Lots of people love Fear and Loathing because it’s a freewheeling ride through the outer reaches of excess and self-indulgence. They feel it sanctions their own bacchanalia and somehow gives their dissoluteness validity. That Thompson eventually admitted to having made up and exaggerated several incidents serves to illustrate the point I am trying to make. Thompson’s masterpiece is about America, about the way it presents itself, of how skewed the reality is. He saw his country, particularly in the Nixon era, as one long acid nightmare, full of, as the British writer Iain Sinclair puts it, “crocodiles in suits roaming the world.” Thompson “was the man with the big game license,” and there was no keener shot around. He destroyed his targets with a belligerent wit, taking aim at the venal, the pompous and the power-twisted. He dissected the violent heart of a country whose political direction was so at odds with the image it wished the world to buy with a lyrical flourish. And there’s the rub. You can’t ignore the beauty of Thompson’s writing. He had an eye for the telling detail. He would not only have you roaring with laughter but nodding your head in agreement. His first three books form the greatest part of what can now be called his legacy. Hell’s Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 are indispensable treatments of a time when the naïve optimism of sixties idealism fell into the expediency of the seventies. Thompson is in spirit, with the Beats and the Merry Pranksters. But he was unique, even though he has to share credit for the creation of Gonzo journalism with Tom Wolfe. But he gave it a name and he more than anyone else will be associated with it. There have been many imitators since, but no one like him.

I heard the news of Thompson’s death this morning. When I looked at the headline on my computer screen it took me a moment to digest it. I clicked onto the story and read in increasing disbelief of Thompson’s suicide. The coffee cooled in my cup. Why should I have been so surprised? Wasn’t it amazing that Thompson, holed up as he was in his Thoreau-like retreat, didn’t do this many years ago? I soon realised that it was not the manner of his death but his death itself.

The world is a poorer place today. At a time when everything is collapsing into one homogenous mass of trite inanity, when politicians routinely strip the language of any meaning, and when the gap between the reality of the world and the way it is presented to us is ever widening, we need more people like Hunter S Thompson, not fewer.

And so the words run dry. If I ever get to meet the Duke in the afterlife I’m going to have a word with him for leaving the party early. But now I am going back to my bookshelf, as all who love his writing will.

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