Goodbye to gonzo: Thompson's death marks the passing of a literary era

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

LOS ANGELES -- In a rare moment of nostalgia, Hunter S. Thompson once reflected on the 1960s, the era that had formed him as a writer, as a time when "we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave."

Looking back at the era's passing, he added with no small measure of disappointment: "You can almost see the high-water mark -- the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."

Thompson's suicide Sunday at age 67 now gives those words from his 1971 classic, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," a special poignancy. Because the style of writing he invented -- "gonzo journalism" -- surely reached its peak with its creator and isn't likely to be duplicated in quite that way ever again.

Thompson was often linked with fellow writers Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe as part of a troika of literary titans who invented a reporting style in the 1960s that came to be known as the New Journalism. But Talese, for his part, never saw it that way, saying Monday that Thompson was an original.

While all three writers took an eye for description and detail to new heights, only Thompson immersed himself so thoroughly -- and often so outrageously -- into his stories, Talese said.

"I will miss him as a man who was amusing while he was also insightful," the author of "Honor Thy Father" said from his New York City apartment. "He was amusing and also maybe wretchedly out of step with the current morality. At this time of political correctness, he was never politically correct, and that is what I'll miss the most about him."

Indeed, Thompson never seemed to care whom he offended, especially if they were politicians.

Stomp the president

He once suggested former President Bush should be brutally stomped by voters. He called former Vice President Hubert Humphrey "a hopelessly dishonest old hack," compared the late Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine to a "vicious 200-pound river rat" and frequently dismissed former President Clinton as a white-trash hillbilly.

In one of his more recent books, "Kingdom of Fear," he described the members of the current Bush administration: "They are the racists and hate mongers among us -- they are the Ku Klux Klan." And those were his more polite terms for them.

"He had more to say about what was wrong with America than George W. Bush can ever tell us about what is right," an admiring fellow writer, Norman Mailer, said in a statement released Monday.

He also had a penchant for taking a story assignment and turning it on its head, outraging editors in the process, although they would often forgive him later when he responded with something much better than what they had originally envisioned.

"Every editor that I know, myself included, was willing to accept a certain prima donna journalism in the demands he would make to cover a particular story," recalled Paul Krassner, editor of the leftist magazine The Realist. "They were willing to risk all of his irresponsible behavior in order to share his talent with their readers."

Dispatched to Las Vegas to cover a desert off-road race, for example, Thompson decided instead to seek out the American dream in that gambler's paradise. The result was the book "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."

He sought out the American dream, by his account, by staying awake for days on end, constantly intoxicated on a near-lethal combination of alcohol and drugs and describing almost everyone he encountered during his visit in the most bestial of terms.

"We had two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine and a whole galaxy of multicolored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers," he wrote.

Whether he actually prepared for his assignments with that kind of indulgence, Talese said he didn't know.

"You never know what these people do," the author said. "They know what is entertaining about their material, and sometimes what is not true about their life becomes part of their persona."

What is known is that authorities who raided Thompson's rural Colorado home in 1990 found LSD, cocaine, marijuana and dynamite there. He beat the charges, however, when the search was ruled illegal.

His home was often described as a "heavily fortified compound," although Thompson, who would sometimes take high-powered firearms into his back yard for target practice, acknowledged in a 2003 interview that that was an exaggeration.

"I think the only fortification might be my reputation," he told Salon magazine. "If people believe they're going to be shot, they might stay away."

Although Thompson admitted to a lifelong fascination with guns, many who knew him said they never imagined he would shoot himself.

"I'm stunned," said Krassner, who was nearly speechless for several minutes after hearing the news. "It's hard to believe I'm referring to him in the past tense."

Thompson had begun to jokingly refer to himself in recent years as "an elderly dope fiend living out in the wilderness," and several acquaintances said his health had begun to deteriorate.

San Francisco Chronicle Editor Phil Bronstein, who visited Thompson and his wife, Anita, in Colorado last summer, told the Chronicle that Thompson was recovering from spinal surgery and a broken leg but didn't seem depressed.

"He was excited about what was going on in the world as he always was," Bronstein said. "He seemed, as always, bizarre and interesting and fascinating and was a remarkably charming and friendly host."

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