Johnny Cash, John Peel, and now Hunter S. Thompson. The only three strangers whose death has caused me to shed tears.
I have been trying to sort out what I want to say about the good doctor for most of the day.
Thompson is quite justly held up as one of the great American writers – he pioneered an astonishing brand of journalism, one that I personally feel may be the most valuable kind, because ultimately, it’s about giving a shit about something, getting out there and engaging with the world, learning from it, making it different in some way, rather than just observing and reporting. So it’s always faintly rankled with me, that the book everyone holds up as his best work is Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas.
I become suspicious that perhaps, that’s all they’ve bothered to read of his work, because it’s the “underground classic”. Me, I’ve always prefered Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. There’s more berserk gonzo madness in the first one, sure. There’s more drug taking, and lunatic escapades – superficially, it’s cooler. But the second always seemed like the more mature work to me. By the second book, he’d mastered his technique, and rather than turning it on the rather nebulous “American Dream”, he was using it on something that mattered – a presidential campaign, a document of how political power worked in America at that time.
The book is no less savage, no less vituperative and no less filled with craziness, but these are stories that actually happened, events by which the world was changed, covered by a man with a command and love of language second to none, a man with passion and conviction. I don’t understand why everyone prefers the more ficitionalised example.
I think one of the reasons that people prefering the fiction rankles a little is that whatever else one can say about him (and lets be honest, there are many unflattering things that could be said about him) Thompson was a blisteringly honest man, who wrote what he thought. There was no-one else who could write books like him, because he wrote with a near complete disregard for the consequences. No political journalist out to build his career would have written the book Thompson did. No-one who worried about the safety of their four limbs would have even gone to get the story on the Hells Angels the way Thompson did, never mind written the book afterward.
Thompson is not a man I would like to have met, unlike Peel and Cash. But, like both of them, I would have liked the chance to thank him somehow. In most of the pieces of writing I’m happiest with, I can see things I learned from reading his work.
“I feel like I might as well be sitting up here carving the words for my own tombstone… and when I finish, the only fitting exit will be right straight off this fucking terrace and into The Fountain, 28 stories below and at least 200 yeards out in the air and across Fifth Avenue.
Nobody could follow that act.”
— Hunter S. Thompson, from the Author’s Note accompanying “The Great Shark Hunt”.