February 23, 2005

Fear and Loathing

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It was always a little uncomfortable to imagine a slow death for Hunter S. Thompson, who spent much of the last 30 years as a recluse in Woody Creek, Colo before ending his life on Sunday. How could this idealistic and outraged journalist, an iconoclastic truth-telling prophet of American decay, carry his AARP card gently into the night?

He could not write about anything other than what he knew, and whenever his recent writings, on espn.com and in books of essays, veered to the contemporary, it read like a lukewarm parody of his own earlier style.

He will be remembered most as a furious satirist, a comic chronicler of the period when America lost its innocence and the American Dream died. The argument that the 1960s were not as Thompson wrote them is for pedants and college professors. So what?

Better than the new journalism of Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, or the self-indulgence of Norman Mailer in Armies of The Night, more than even Woodward or Bernstein, Thompson revealed the political truths of his era, and curses its lies.

Reading the weird interaction of idealism and anger in his letters and essays from 1968 to 1976 thirty years after they were written, published in the book Fear and Loathing in America, is like discovering a window into the last 30 years of American life.

Idealism shines through even as he grows bitter about the idiocy of the culture, from John Wayne to hippiedom, a change wrought by assassinations, Vietnam and the rise of Richard Nixon. His antics and ability to entertain shine even as he was deeply affected by these events; as he wrote in a 2002 espn.com column, “My brain is covered with scar-tissue. I was 22 when JFK was murdered, and I will never recover from it … Never.”

It is hard to remember that Thompson was a fairly straightforward journalist before he broke out. His first book was a first person narrative non-fiction account of his year hanging around a motorcycle gang in Hell’s Angels. The characters, not the form, were the freaks, albeit freaks who were a “logical product of the culture that now claims them to be shocked at their existence.” Even so, in Hell’s Angels, Thompson begins to identify with the loser outlaw, the loser who takes action, a pose that would bring about the best book of its generation.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas introduced Raoul Duke, a Thompson alias, who abandons the pretense of objective journalism in favor of an embellished style to speak deeper truths. As Duke and his attorney go on a drug-binge adventure through the West in search of the American Dream, the paint comes off the walls and a hellish vision is realized.

Thompson anticipated the paranoia and nervous breakdown brought about by the deceit and scandal of Watergate and Vietnam, events that sent the nation toward paranoia: by way of satire, he preceded by years the belief of a large part of the nation that the government was run by crooks, that martians killed JFK, RFK, and MLK, and that a massive conspiracy was underway to conceal these facts.

And he also introduced a new vocabulary, largely adopted today by television shoutfests such as those on Fox News. Political adversaries are “Nazis,” “fascists,” “pigs,” “thugs,” “crooks,” “Christ-killers,” etc. Thompson did it best, however, and when he did it first it could still be entertaining. His cultural influence extends into music, where he championed the song, “White Rabbitt” by Jefferson Airplane, which must now be included in every montage of the 1960s.

For all of his own excesses, Thompson was a moralist, one who will be remembered more fondly than many of the figures he wrote about. His judgments of Richard Nixon, (“he was a crook”), Hubert Humphrey, (“a shallow, contemptible and hopelessly dishonest old hack”), and Edmund Muskie (an Ibogaine addict) are, for better or worse, the most memorable and final things ever said about them. As for the state of journalism, whenever an attack is made on the political coverage of the objective press, the critics borrow a page from Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972.

While Thompson veered to the left, supporting the Democratic candidate in presidential races, he was not a liberal. He clearly had no use for hippies or hipsters, writing in Hell’s Angels, that, “Students who could barely get up the nerve to sign a petition or to shoplift a candy bar were fascinated by tales of the Hell’s Angels ripping up towns and taking whatever they wanted … The Angels didn’t masturbate, they raped.”

In fact, in almost any other era, one can imagine the Doctor as a conservative: a pessimist with regards to human behavior, a reclusive, gun toting patriot, isolationist about American entanglements overseas, and throughout his writings suggesting that he was shocked by the total depravity of the late 1960s. The conservatives who baited Thompson in their attacks on the counterculture of the 60s are not intelligent enough to realize they are assaulting the author of the version of events they so detest.

The genius of Thompson was his ability to exist outside normal considerations, political or otherwise. He was an enemy of the status quo, who reached back to a Horatio Alger ideal of Americans and found his contemporaries lacking. In his time and for his country, as Mark Twain skewered the Gilded Age, and Mencken did the Roaring Twenties, Thompson captured the zeitgeist. We will not soon forget it.

Archived article by Pete Norlander
Sun Senior Editor