Monday, February 21, 2005

Hunter S. Thompson

One of the signature characters of American journalism shot himself yesterday.

When I was eighteen, I read Hunter S. Thompson's classic "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." Imagine being eighteen and reading these opening paragraphs:
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like "I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive..." And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: "Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?"

Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process. "What the hell are you talking about?" he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound sunglasses. "Never mind," I said. "It's your turn to drive." I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red Shark toward the shoulder of the highway. No point mentioning those bats, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough.

It was wildly funny twenty-five years ago when I first read it, and it's still wildly funny today. The entire book was brilliant and outrageous, and it made a permanent impression on me. In an era when most of his peers were talking about peace, love, and understanding, Hunter S. Thompson was a swift kick to the face. By jack-booted thugs.

Thompson's family issued a statement after his death. "He stomped terra," it said. That's the best one sentence description of a man I've ever heard.

There was no one like Thompson. There was no one like him then, and there's been no one like him since. He was so strange as a person that I'm not sure he can be defined or even described. His writing suffered greatly when he became a celebrity, as it almost always does. Before his caricature, though, he was a laser beam, and besides being damned funny, he was one of the best political writers in the country as well.

I was saddened yesterday when I heard that he committed suicide. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that he wouldn't have had it any other way.

If you haven't read "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," do yourself a favor and check it out. It's well worth the time.

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