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An Appreciation of Hunter S. Thompson

"Hunter, I know you're there. Pick up."

Walter Isaacson, head of the Aspen Institute, had put in a call to Hunter S. Thompson, the iconic gonzo journalist who died Sunday at the age of 67.

Michael Lewis and I were sitting in Walter's office in Aspen last summer when Walter suggested that we visit Thompson, who lived down the valley in Woody Creek. For many of us in the reporting business, Thompson was larger than life and weirder than life. He had invented a style of journalism that required him to take on a mythological persona, that of a drug-gobbling anti-Establishment provocateur, always on the road at some Vegas prizefight or Super Bowl or political convention, whacked to the gills as he tries to get the story.

Walter knew that Thompson had a makeshift office in his kitchen, really just a countertop with a typewriter, the cigarettes and liquor in easy reach, along with Thompson's books, his magazine articles, all the detritus of a long, crazy, brain-hammering career. Thompson apparently rarely budged, screening his calls, typing, fidgeting, smoking, and tending to one of the all-time most successful cults of personality.

Sure enough, Thompson picked up the phone, and invited us to come out to his place later in the evening do to some shooting (he had quite the arsenal of firearms).

We reached Woody Creek at about 9 p.m. and soon were in Thompson's kitchen. I sat on the floor beneath the sink, gazing up at the great man. The next two hours were not so much a conversation as a tribute.

Thompson looked fragile: He had a noticeable limp on the few occasions that he left his station. When his wife, Anita, showed up with a fancy bottle of spirits [I am thinking it was tequila and would normally just say so, but these details matter when it comes to HST lore], he took a swig, then pumped his fist and stamped one foot, like a coach whose team has just scored a touchdown. Later he lit up a bowl of something, and took a deep lungful. This transpired without commentary from him or anyone else in the room. He didn't make any overt attempt to pass the pipe around, but he did palm the pipe at his waist, and wiggled it in my direction, a kind of "here, doggy" gesture, as though he were going to feed me a biscuit.

Somehow we never got around to firing any guns, and instead performed dramatic readings of Thompson's classic material. He was an appreciative audience. I asked if he had an original copy of the issue of Rolling Stone with his classic gonzo narrative "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," and he did, on a shelf by his right knee, protected in plastic. I nearly wept at the sight of this journalistic treasure -- you know, with that opening riff of we were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold -- and in a spasm of reverence I momentarily fumbled it directly into the stack of dishes in the sink. No harm, no foul.

For all of Thompson's theatrics and self-abuse, he could write like a demon. His prose accelerated across the page like a sportscar with the top down. He kept himself squarely in the picture, to great comic effect. We understood that he needed drugs the way other people needed oxygen, that he had an odd fondness for guns and violence, and that he loathed Richard Nixon and most authoritarian institutions. Otherwise, he wasn't very complicated. He didn't gum up his narrative with soul-searching. He really served as a big eyeball, if perhaps a rather glazed one.

James Fenton once complained that many journalists can't tell a story correctly because to do so would imply that they had personally witnessed the events at hand. Thompson never had that problem. His best work centered around his almost Mr. Magoo-like stumbling and lurching into places that a chemically addled person didn't belong.

In his kitchen I read aloud his account of Richard Nixon's departure from the White House in August 1974:

"....I eased through the crowd of photographers and walked out, looking back at the White House, where Nixon was giving his final address to a shocked crowd of White House staffers. I examined the aircraft very closely, and I was just about to climb into it when I heard a loud rumbling behind me; I turned around just in time to see Richard and Pat coming toward me, trailing their daughters and followed closely by Gerald Ford and Betty. Their faces were grim and they were walking very slowly; Nixon had a glazed smile on his face, not looking at anybody around him, and walked like a wooden Indian full of Thorazine. His face was a greasy death mask. I stepped back out of the way and nodded hello but he didn't seem to recognize me..."

That's vintage Thompson, not only on the scene but on the verge of getting into Nixon's helicopter!

Any suspicion that Thompson just knocked this stuff out in a first draft should be dispelled by the last few graphs of the article, where he shows his craft:

"I was so close that the noise hurt my ears. The rotor blades were invisible now, but the wind was getting heavier; I could feel it pressing my eyeballs back into their sockets. For an instant I thought I could see Richard Nixon's face pressed up to the window. Was he smiling? Was it Nixon? I couldn't be sure. And now it made no difference....

"I was still very close to the helicopter, watching the tires. As the beast began rising, the tires became suddenly fat; there was no more weight on them....The helicopter went straight up and hovered for a moment, then swooped down toward the Washington Monument and then angled up into the fog. Richard Nixon was gone."

Thompson nodded and laughed and smiled as we read these things. He knew it was good. He had been at the peak of his powers. And these nice folks had come to his house to pay homage and remind him of his glory days.

Michael Lewis picked up on an interesting detail in his home: There were all these sayings, slogans, scrawled fragments of ideas, and so on, tacked or taped to various surfaces in the house, and they seemed to be reminding Thompson of his identity. It was like: This is your character. These are your thoughts. These are the wacky and nutty and bizarre things you have said. This is who you must always be. Remember your role.

When you invent a great character for yourself you may be trapped by it the rest of your days. To be an icon is a brutal job. The early reports say Thompson ended his own life with a gun. That's not a gonzo conclusion to his story, that's just a tragedy. It's hard to believe: Hunter S. Thompson is gone.

By Joel Achenbach  |  February 21, 2005; 9:48 AM ET
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