Magazine article The World and I

Hunter S. Thompson and Spalding Gray

Magazine article The World and I

Hunter S. Thompson and Spalding Gray

Article excerpt

On March 7, 2004 the dead body of 62-year-old Spalding Gray was pulled from Manhattan's East River. He had been missing for two months. An actor/storyteller who wrote and performed autobiographical monologues for stage and screen--his most well-known is Swimming to Cambodia--Gray had apparently committed suicide.

Gray became famous by talking about--among other things--his experiences in the warm waters of Southeast Asia while working as an actor in the acclaimed 1984 movie, The Killing Fields. But he ended his life twenty years later in the cold waters off New York City. Was he aware, during the last moments of his life, of that morbid irony?

A year later, on February 20, 2005, Hunter S. Thompson, the famed "Gonzo" journalist best known for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas--a supposedly nonfiction account riddled with drug- and alcohol-fueled flights of fantasy and made into a movie starring Johnny Depp--shot himself through the head. He was 67.

Both were well-known writers and near-contemporaries. Both received wide critical and popular acclaim, and both had loyal followings.

If they didn't invent the literary-theatrical form in which they worked--Thompson, the kamikaze type of journalism in which the writer puts himself and his vivid imagination at the risky center of the story; and Gray, the self-revealing, highly personal solo stage performance--both brought their genre to the attention of a large public.

Even their names had an odd similarity: a common WASP last name combined with an unusual first name associated with manly activities. Spalding is a large sporting goods company, and Hunter, of course, evokes the quintessential macho pursuit.

Thompson and Gray were cult figures, embodying the spirit of their times. The turbulent, defiant 1960s and the me-decade of the 1970s found their ideal mouthpiece in Thompson, who was self-obsessed and snarlingly funny, always furious at the limitations the world placed on him and guilt-free about his fierce actions and attitudes.

Gray caught the zeitgeist of the late 1980s and 1990s. In that era he was the WASP Woody Allen: a self-obsessed, helpless post-modern man facing an overwhelmingly complex world. Embarrassingly honest about sex, work, friendship, love and death, in one of his solo performances he described his adult self as a whiny, helpless toddler: "... I was a wha-wha-wha little two-year-old. Just wha-wha-wha all over the place."

It can be argued that Thompson and Gray connected with the very same audience at different times in that audience's life-span. In his unfettered way, Thompson spoke to those born just after World War II when they were still young and unattached and using illegal substances. In his urban, anxious, psychoanalyzed way, Gray spoke to those same people when they had grown up, married, had children and jobs.

At their best, both Thompson and Gray were inventive, brilliant and outrageously funny.

Here is Thompson's description of a beach scene with birds: "Get out in the surf, in the fog, and slosh along on numb-frozen feet about ten yards out from the tideline ... stomping through tribes of wild sandpeckers ... riderunners ... stupid little birds and crabs and saltsuckers, with here and there a big pervert or woolly reject gimping off in the distance, wandering alone by themselves behind the dunes and the driftwood ..."

Gray, inventing an acting resume for himself, tells an agent that his latest movie is "...the story of the demise of Dylan Thomas, and his wife's struggle to go on after his death. I play a lesser American poet who comes to her Welsh boathouse to console her ... It's a cult film that plays in Welsh theaters at midnight. Then there's, oh, Time of the Assassins ... It's about Rimbaud--what a fascinating guy, what a scallywag ... I play a lesser American poet who visits him on his deathbed ... This one hasn't been released yet ... …

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