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A Bullet Called Gonzo (1937-2005)

'When I finish,' Hunter S. Thompson wrote in 1979, 'the only fitting exit will be right straight off this fucking terrace and into the Fountain, 28 storeys below.' Crazy talk, but his preface to The Great Shark Hunt prophesied his suicide 26 years later.

Original publication: Marie Claire, 2009.

‘Act your old age,’ said the note. ‘Relax – This won’t hurt.’ So it was that late on a Sunday afternoon in February 2005 family members at Owl Farm in Woody Creek, Colorado, heard a noise sounding like a book falling to the floor. In a way, one had. The bullet went through his mouth, into the palate and out the back of his head, and within hours headlines announced worldwide that the legendary wild man of American letters, author and journalist Dr Hunter S. Thompson (the S for ‘Stockton’, the doctorate a ten-buck mail-order purchase), had died at 67 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Hunter S Thompson

Those who knew him personally said his suicide was inevitable, that it was a final act of freedom by a libertarian who came of age in the countercultural movement of the 1960s, and that in hindsight his last weeks showed the tell-tale signs of a man taking his leave: calls to long-lost friends and lovers, unusually lucid business instructions, disbursement of family mementos, a weekend at his ranch with his son and grandchild, and, as if for old time’s sake, another bust-up with his wife Anita, who was at gym when word came that Thompson had quietly read the Sunday papers, then, without any to-do, gone and killed himself.

Those who knew him from his writing would have been surprised he’d managed to live so long at all. His entire life looked like a suicide mission. On the road as a reporter, a typical breakfast consisted of grapefruit, six Heinekens, and a bottle of gin. At home it might be bacon sandwiches with mayonnaise and peanut butter, followed by six coffees, a six-pack and a whisky main course. In a magazine office, he’d ease into the day with several Blood Marys and thirteen lines of cocaine. For breakfast. Thompson put in long hours.

This was a man who had drunk, chain-smoked and taken an encyclopedic assortment of drugs night and day essentially non-stop for about fifty years of his life. Tall, good-looking in his prime, as robust as a steam train, and described by many as charismatic and mentally gifted, Thompson acquired – even cultivated – a reputation as a hell-raiser in life, literature and politics. That reputation, that ethos, is evoked by the word most closely associated with him: gonzo, the title of an RB song and Cajun slang meaning ‘to play unhinged’.

Thompson’s gonzo pranks ran beyond number. Visiting an editor, he might decide to show up with a four-foot snake or vent a fire extinguisher on him; visiting a friend, it would seem natural to leave a pig’s decapitated head in the toilet bowl. He maced a restaurant and had a devastating way with hotel rooms. When Thompson got behind the wheel of a car or the handle of a motorbike, things would pick up: midnight hell-rides with the lights off, fist-fights in bars, accidents, hospitals, sirens.

Cooling his heels at Owl Farm, he might choose to drive about the neighbourhood in the wee hours, playing slaughterhouse screams over a loudspeaker and depositing, Manson-style, an elk heart on his pal Jack Nicholson’s doorstep. Then again, at other times he’d just stay in for a change and call friends for a chat (at three a.m.) or set the couch alight, or blow out his windows with a gun.

Alternatively, he would have guests discover a stew of corpse-like sex dolls broiling in the hot tub, or detonate propane drums in the backyard, blast a Jeep 300 feet up into the air, or – pretending to be at the end of his rope – fire a shotgun point-blank at a chum (the weapon was primed with confetti).

It was fitting, then, that six months after his suicide, Thompson was back in the news when his last wishes were honoured at a celebrity-packed memorial service and his ashes shot from a cannon on a 153-foot tower shaped as a fist holding a peyote button.

None of which is very Nadine Gordimer or JM Coetzee; but all of it is most definitely literary. His contemporaries have often called him a renegade child in an adult body, and he himself said he was ‘the soul of a teenage girl trapped in the body of an ageing dope fiend.’ Still, it would be superficial to interpret his suicide as just a hard man’s last hard deed, or his cannonade as another thumb in the eye to propriety, a good-bye jape for the faithful.

Gonzo was his brand, his myth, a name for the energy that allowed him to write and, towards the end, made writing all but impossible: he wanted to make a monument of it and have it enshrined for posterity. The longer he stuck about, addled and ailing, the greater the prospect of embarrassing his iconic status. This was death by literary ambition.

Born in 1937 in Louisville, Kentucky, Thompson entertained exalted dreams from an early age, joining a literary society while in high school and – according to a friend of his in the society –  typing out novels by Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald word for word to get a feel for the prose. His friend regarded the exercise as ‘pure pretension’ but there was more to it than adolescent whimsy.

A roommate of Thompson’s from his twenties remembers him mentioning these authors in the same breath and saying he wanted to be a great writer – but that ‘he figured he’d have to do some sort of journalism to make a living in the meantime.’ Years on, Thompson was to visit Fitzgerald’s grave as well as the scene of Hemingway’s suicide, stealing a pair of antlers from the latter’s cabin to make a symbolic statement.

Thompson’s father died when the boy was 14, and Hunter and his brothers Davison and James were raised single-handedly by their mother, Virginia, a librarian who was said to have a drinking problem of her own. Some have speculated that the early loss of his father accounts for Thompson’s wild-cat behaviour; others regard it as compensation for the fact that he was born with one leg shorter than the other.

Whatever the case, by the time he was in his senior year at high school, Thompson was charged as an accessory to robbery and, since he was on probation for previous crimes, received an ultimatum: go to the military or face prison. It was a source of lifelong bitterness that his well-connected co-accused were sprung from jail whereas he – a lower-middle-class teen – spent 30 days in county lock-up. As his compatriot, the British artist Ralph Steadman, said, ‘He was always going to be against those who belong and for those who don’t.’

Thompson never finished high school. He caught a bus to the air force, winding up as a sportswriter at a base newspaper before being honourably discharged and finding himself, aged 21, on the hoof again, subsisting in boho squalor and migrating through a succession of short-lived newspaper gigs and, as a freelancer, into the Caribbean and South America, a period commemorated in 1998 in The Rum Diary.

He was making a name for himself; he was also married to Sandy Conklin, and had a son: although Juan was the only child of the tempestuous, 17-year-long marriage, Sandy had suffered numerous miscarriages and two infant deaths. But the Thompsons’ nest in mid-60s California was never short of the pitter-patter of other little feet, those of the visiting Hell’s Angels, with whom Thompson became enmeshed during field research and at whose hands he was eventually to take a beating.

Thompson said it was a row over money; Sonny Barger, the Hells Angels’ front-man, said all they wanted in compensation for their time was a keg of beer. As for the beating, he said, a biker happened to slap his girlfriend and kick his dog when it defended it’s ma’am. Thompson intervened in outrage and was knocked about for his pains.

Hell’s Angels, published when Thompson was 28, was a career breakthrough. These were the giddy years of the New Journalism, when, according to its leading spokesman, Tom Wolfe, journalists began taking aboard stylistic devices usually associated with the fictional novel and threatened to overthrow it as the apex literary form. Wolfe cited writers such as Truman Capote, Gay Talese and Joan Didion, and paid special tribute to Hell’s Angels for the daredevilry of its research.

Thompson was on the ascendant, augmenting his growing countercultural status by running for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, on the Freak Power ticket (an election he lost only narrowly), and, in 1970, publishing ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’. It was his first article in gonzo mode – an impressionistic style in which the journalist is not so much as an observer as an actor and instigator, mediumistically channelling things through his high-voltage psyche.

The style bloomed in the work for which he’s best known, the sleazy, rambunctious masterpiece Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and it was pushed further when, in association with Jann Wenner, the founder of Rolling Stone magazine and an impresario with whom he enjoyed a long, rich and vexed relationship, Thompson distinguished himself in his coverage of the 1972 U.S. presidential elections, articles published in book form as Fear and Loathing on the Campaign trail ’72.

This was the Golden Age of Gonzo. Lit up by fame and success, the fan mail, the hate mail, the adoring women cuddling him at parties, Thompson was surrounded by whack-jobs and worshippers, groupies and imitators, and a celebrity entourage which, over the years, included an endless list of senior politicians and film stars: Bill Murray, John Belushi, Margot Kidder, Angelica Houston, Don Johnson, Marylin Manson, Sean Penn, John Cusack, Johnny Depp …. Ironically, one of his deepest, most tough-love friendships was with Bob Braudis, his hometown sheriff.

Thompson was becoming increasingly conscious of his persona. His clothes weren’t clothes but costumes; his dealings were performances – deeply-felt ones – of the whirlwind character ‘Hunter S. Thompson’. His legendary charisma was at its brightest, and accounts by his contemporaries portray him as zone of dangerous, attractive intensity, a man enveloped in a ‘crisis atmosphere’.

‘It was like he left one part of his personality behind and got into another,’ said Norman Mailer, echoing the epigraph to the Vegas book: ‘He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.’ His marriage to Sandy had been stormy: passionate but frequently emotionally abusive and sometimes physically, too. Before they divorced in 1980, she asked him when he was ‘in a rare calm mood’ if he knew when he was about to change.

‘Sandy, do you know what it’s like?’ he replied. ‘I’m just standing here, and I have a sense that something is about to happen. And then I start to turn my head, and it’s here. The monster’s here.’

Moving into the somewhat eclipsed period of the 1980s to mid-1990s, he remained committed to his writing, publishing a succession of books which often outdid his early work (Songs of the Doomed, Better Than Sex) and continuing to write for magazines, though some take the view the articles were inferior efforts verging on cash-for-hack work, and reflected a dissipation of his talents.

What is indisputable, though, is that Thompson was finding it enormously difficult to write, and that editors waiting at the other side were driven to despair. Bringing in a Hunter piece around deadline had always been like effecting a moon landing, a transcontinental op between HQ and Owl Farm involving three or more people in addition to the writer, who’d be kept awake for days on end and dosed up or down with drugs as the need required. Now, increasingly, editors would be lucky if the moon unit came in at all. Long gone was the image of an author composing in solitude. Hunter productions were team efforts by researchers, go-fers, handlers, on-site editors, college volunteers and a parade of girlfriend-assistants.

Thompson’s writerly blocks seem to have been the result partly of the performance pressures he faced and largely of his drug abuse, which intensified as the years wore on.

In the late 1990s his celebrity was at its peak, having enjoyed a massive resurgence thanks to the film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas starring Johnny Depp. The film repopularised his work by introducing it to a new generation, and his campus lectures and club shows drew sell-out crowds. Anniversary editions of his books were published, as well as volumes of selected writings. There were book tours, book signings, book events.

His friend William Kennedy recalls seeing him at one of these in the early 2000s. A thousand people arrived, but Thompson himself was ‘in an ultimate condition – a constant movement of hands to smoke with the cigarette holder, or tip the glass of Chivas, or pack the pipe with dope, or pop the pills, grind the coke, sniff it, smoke it, drink it, eat it, inhale it, hand-to-mouth, hand-to-hand; he had turned himself into a perpetual-motion machine, a perpetual intoxicating device.’

Why didn’t he say No? Many people had asked him this, and many had attempted to rehabilitate him; but they rued the day. When his longstanding partner Laila Nabulsi, scared that he’d die, confronted him years before with the choice – drugs or me – Thompson said before she left, ‘I’ve made a career decision.’

Now choice wasn’t an option at all, if by the logic of his ambition it had ever been. In his last years Thompson was wheelchair-bound, suffering chronic pain in his hips and spine, in misery at his creative deterioration. The suicide and funeral made headlines. Better them, perhaps, in this thinking, than the deflationary alternative: ‘Thompson in rehab, frail care.’ Hunter might live; Gonzo would die; and then what would have been the point of Hunter? 

[Principal source: Wenner, J. Corey, S., eds. 2007. Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson. London: Sphere.]


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