The Doctor Is Still In: Hunter S. Thompson Joins the Ranks of the Classics

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Hunter S. Thompson joins the ranks of the classics

WE'RE IN DR. HUNTER S Thompson's New York hotel suite when the coughing starts to take hold. A terrible pipe-induced death rattle. It turns his bald head blood-red and doesn't go away until the notoriously hard-living "doctor" of gonzo journalism swigs a mouthful of Chivas Regal, gargles with it, then lets out a earsplitting screech to clear his throat. "HAAIIIEEEE!!" Let the interview begin.

At 11:30 p.m., HST is just starting to recover from the previous night's festivities, a tony booze-up celebrating the 25th anniversary of his revolutionary book, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." (Opening line: "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.") Originally published in Rolling Stone, this hallucinogenic postcard from the edge has just been reissued in a Modern Library edition, alongside "Moby-Dick" and Proust. An audio adaptation is out this week. And next spring Villard will roll out volume one of Thompson's letters. "When I was 19 1 was already talking about selling my letters," he barks in his staccato mumble. "Calling them the Nest Egg."

The imprimatur of literary eminence means Thompson, 59, is officially respected--if not quite respectable. Upon arriving in New York last week, he unloaded a fire extinguisher on Rolling Stone Editor in Chief Jann Wenner. During the party, held at the stuffy Lotos Club, he kept attacking people with a noisemaking plastic hammer. He grabbed his old friend Tom Wolfe, still recovering from triple-bypass heart surgery, in a chokehold. "One of the few writers who comes as advertised," Wolfe said after the assault. Among the old lions of New Journalism (George Plimpton et al.), a couple of junior Hollywood hangers-on paid homage. Johnny Depp, with Kate Moss. Matt Dillon. Mick Jagger came late, after Thompson had already fled to his hotel. During the hard-core afterparty in his suite he passed out in the bathtub, bringing to mind the epigraph from Dr. Johnson with which "Fear and Loathing" begins: "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man."

Induction into the canon may have lessened the pain a little. In his current benevolent mode -the wise old hipster in his crimson collarless shirt and silver Mexican medallion-he is immensely gracious and likable. …