Magazine article American Journalism Review

An American Original: A Journalist-Whose AJR Account of an Unforgettable Night with Hunter S. Thompson Led to a Big-Time Demotion at His Day Job-Fondly Remembers the Good Doctor, and a Surprising Act of Kindness in the Middle of the Night

Magazine article American Journalism Review

An American Original: A Journalist-Whose AJR Account of an Unforgettable Night with Hunter S. Thompson Led to a Big-Time Demotion at His Day Job-Fondly Remembers the Good Doctor, and a Surprising Act of Kindness in the Middle of the Night

Article excerpt

"The best epitaph a man can gain is to have accomplished daring deeds of
valor against the enmity of fiends during his lifetime."
--Thomas McGuane

Hunter S. Thompson is gone, and we're the poorer for it. The man whose drug-fueled paranoia and bottomless love for the promise of America combined to produce unforgettable ruminations on the state of American politics--in a new form of journalism he popularized--checked out at 67 while sitting in his own kitchen, a place that over the years became a veritable salon of American arts and letters, gonzo-style.

Naturally, a gun was involved.

I met Hunter nearly 10 years ago and had stayed in touch but sporadically (the wasting of a great gift, not making more of that acquaintance, it seems to me now), and his death was the kind of thing where your friends call the minute they hear. I was in Brussels when the news came down, covering George W. Bush, who, with Richard Nixon, was among Hunter's least favorite presidents. At the exact moment, I was sipping a late-night beer in a smoky bar, checking in with a friend by phone, when someone e-mailed the Associated Press dispatch from Aspen.

I quickly hung up and read, and reread, that maddeningly short wire story, looking for clues as to why. And all through the next hours came the e-mails from the States.

He'd like that, I think, knowing that I, who knew him slightly, and the thousands and thousands of others who never met him will always remember where we were when we got The Word.

I once had the great fortune to spend an evening with Hunter in that kitchen, a night both unforgettable and difficult to fully remember, a ride that encompassed nearly everything in the Thompson oeuvre, save for the firing of guns. Which we had intended to do, but, as these things go, we found ourselves distracted.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Hunter took journalism in a new direction, for sure, throwing out the rules and conventions of traditional writing as unsuitable for the times.

"Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism, which is true, but they will miss the point," Hunter wrote in the middle of an obituary of Richard Nixon, a piece in which he said Nixon's body should have been burned in a barrel and his casket launched down "one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles." He continued: "It was the built-in blind spot of the Objective Rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place."

What's less remembered about Hunter is the sweep of his knowledge--he could quote the Bible, Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Norman Mailer, the Koran, at will--and the clarity of his writing.

"Hell's Angels" holds up today as one of the guideposts in observatory journalism; "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" ranks with Terry Southern's "The Magic Christian" or Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" as slim, essential volumes that include not a wasted word or extraneous thought.

David Byrne once said that everyone who heard the Velvet Underground went on to form a band, and it's safe to say--especially given the Bloggers' World we now live in--that Hunter inspired a lot of people to start practicing journalism.

But it was more than the attitude. Hunter's passion for the reporting of the truth, the instructive, persuasive nature of telling a story in the right way, was what made him special; he'd found a new way to do the right thing.

It wasn't only anger that made his prose sing. It was pain, love, joy, hope, about both the craft of writing and whatever he happened to be writing about.

Getting it right, making it sound right, mattered tremendously to him.

If it were as easy as he made it seem, everyone would do it well.

The great always have their pretenders, and there are few male journalists or writers of a certain age, say 25 through 60, who haven't at times tried to emulate some aspect of Hunter S. …

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