A Man's Guide to One of the Great Writers
“200 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.”
-HST on the United States of America, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72
Hunter would have been 75 years old this month. Don’t dishonor his memory by being the guy who doesn’t know Hunter S. Thompson and his work. Johnny Depp may do a worthwhile impression of The Good Doctor, but Terry Gilliam’s movie is no substitute for experiencing this singularly prized voice of American counterculture in its original medium. Few writers can become so eloquently and magnificently pissed off as Hunter Thompson, fewer are celebrated for it. He lived large, without compromise, though not without consequence. It’s a dying art that comes to life in his writing. Here’s a brief introduction to one of the most caustic, controversial, and uncomfortably honest writers in American history – a must-read for the modern man.
A Life In Brief
Hunter Stockton Thompson was born to Jack Robert and Virginia Ray Davidson Thompson on July 18, 1937 in the heart of Kentucky. Both in person and in prose, he frequently referred to himself as a hillbilly or a simple country boy. Yet like Kerouac, Hemingway, Twain, and others before him, he was much more than a man.
Hunter’s father struggled with disease and died when he was young, leaving behind Hunter, his two brothers, and a wife of 10 years. She searched for solace at the bottom of a bottle, a habit embraced by the young author. He loved guns and sports as much as he loved books. Despite his modest upbringing, Hunter grew to become a member of the prestigious Athenaeum Literary Association and editor of his high school yearbook, The Spectator. But he never graduated. Thompson spent a month in jail charged with accessory to robbery and, as a result, the school refused to allow him to take his final exams. He joined the air force when he learned the news and made Airman First Class before his disregard for “policy” earned him an early honorable discharge in 1958.
Hunter spent the majority of the remainder of his life pounding his unique, journalistic beat. He bounced across the country writing for various publications, penning novels and short stories during on the side, several of which were serialized in the likes of The Rolling Stone. He was frequently fired for insubordinate behavior, and occasionally, for being blitzed beyond all holy reason. His used of controlled substances is legendary; remarkable considering how often he was on the move. Later in his career, he assembled his rare and scattered works, as well as excerpts from his novels, into a sort of compendium, The Gonzo Papers, a four-volume series stretching from The Great Shark Hunt (1979) to Better Than Sex (1994).
He married girlfriend Sandra Dawn Conklin in 1963 after a year working the beat in Brazil for the National Observer and the Brazil Herald. Another year went by and the couple had given birth to their only son Juan Fitzgerald Thompson. They tried five more times, miscarrying three. The other two died shortly after birth – a heartbreaking result of Sandy’s drug and alcohol use. Hunter is said to have been a difficult husband and after 10 years, enduring beatings and taking up drinking in the process, his wife divorced him.
He ran for Sheriff of Aspen, walked the ‘72 election trail with McGovern and Nixon, rode with and was pummeled by the Hells Angels. After 1980, Hunter spent much of his time at his Colorado ranch, Owl Farm, or as he often called it, “my fortified compound.” Like so many brilliant revolutionaries before him, he met an early end. He shot himself in 2005 at age 67, leaving only these words behind:
No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your (old) age. Relax — This won’t hurt.
According to Hunter’s long-time friend and artist, Ralph Steadman, Hunter would have felt “trapped” without the option of suicide on the table. “I don’t know if that is brave or stupid or what, but it was inevitable.”
Why you should read him
Thompson was a man who stepped to his own, bizarre tune and gave zero shits doing it. He was belligerent and stubborn, but honest and deeply troubled by the state of American culture, especially politics. He began a fierce journalistic revolution, challenging the industry standard of passive objectivity by inserting himself into, even inciting, the events he chronicled. A friend told him he was “totally gonzo,” for getting so close and the moniker stuck, defining not just a man, but a movement.
His account of the Nixon-McGovern election race, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, is widely considered one of the best pieces of political journalism of any kind. Recently it has been overshadowed in popular culture by its namesake saga of drug abuse and debauchery, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Both are mind-blowingly awesome examples of microscopic gonzo journalism. Fear and loathing has become one of the most referenced and quotable phrases in literary history, particularly in the age of the cynic.
Reading Thompson’s prose is electric – frantic page-turning fueled by the uncensored, insane, yet insightful words of a man wrestling with madness. There are plenty of obscenities, tangents, drugs, lies, and sex in his rambling, yet timeless narratives. He quotes the Bible frequently and there’s no shortage of ranting to satisfy that frustrated political sweet tooth (especially for left-leaning readers). “Buy the ticket, take the ride,” he wrote. That’s a good rule for any of his works.
Better Than Sex: Confessions of A Political Junkie
Yes, everyone else will tell you to read Fear and Loathing. We’ll get to that (besides, we’re not “everyone else”). If you want raw HST, (and a bit of a challenge) start with Better Than Sex, the capstone of The Gonzo Papers. It is an account of the Clinton administration from Hunter’s perspective and it contains more new work and searing insults than any of the other three volumes.
No member of Clinton’s cabinet or Republican opposition is safe from Thompson’s scorching criticism and outrageous opinion. His abiding bitterness for Nixon is woven continuously throughout. Here’s a relatively gentle excerpt from “He Was A Crook,” a nostalgic memo on the Nixon administration written by Thompson in his capacity as chief of the National Affairs Desk of the Rolling Stone in 1994:
If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.
These are harsh words for a man only recently canonized by President Clinton and my old friend George McGovern — but I have written worse things about Nixon, many times, and the record will show that I kicked him repeatedly long before he went down. I beat him like a mad dog with mange every time I got a chance, and I am proud of it. He was scum.
While the hyperbole is extreme, the sentiment is honest. Be warned that his style changed dramatically during the 80s – if you’ve already read Fear and Loathing, you might be better off starting with our second selection.
Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs
Thompson didn’t just spend a year with one of the toughest motorcycle gangs in the country to write this novel, he took a severe physical and emotional beating. The clip below is an interview conducted in front of a live studio audience between Hunter and an irate Hells Angels rider after the book was published. Note the behavior of the audience when the topic of a biker beating a woman senseless surfaces:
And Of Course:
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream
If you read it in high school, you were too young. Read it again. If you’re in high school, don’t listen to me: read it anyway. It is at once hilarious and terrifying, eye-opening and unbelievable. For many, it is his best work; certainly the most well-known. The important thing is to remember that he and gonzo journalism are far from contained by the covers of this book.Related Links: Understanding Dostoevsky: A Man’s Guide to One of the Great Writers