The release of the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and its attendant publicity have revealed what may be a surprising fact to some Americans: Hunter S. Thompson is alive.
Thompson so belongs to a bygone era that he probably should have had the good sense to die along with it. Years of self-destructive living have taken their toll, but he remains with us--60 years old, mumbling, shambling, drunk, stoned, and addled. Thompson is a useful icon to have around: For right-wingers, he's a visible casualty of '60s sybaritic excess; for rebellious kids, he's a token--or is that toke?--of nostalgia for more exciting times.
The implied question in most criticism of the Fear and Loathing movie is: Why on earth did we ever think this crap mattered? The book and movie chronicle Thompson and his lawyer's drug-fueled invasion of Las Vegas in 1971. Critics have admired the film technically but have deplored Thompson's vision. Fear and Loathing's psychopharmacological obsession is dated and dull, further proof that drugs are not only destructive but banal. The two lead characters are vicious, crude, solipsistic, and adolescent. All in all, it's a bad memory of a silly time in American history, a relic of a national embarrassment.
But the criticism does injustice to Thompson. Now is the worst possible moment for a Thompson revival. This is a tranquil era, and considered in tranquility, Thompson is indeed a horror. His writing seems archaic and crude, and its self-indulgence seems stunning even in an age of memoirs. Thompson is often compared, unfavorably, with his New Journalism comrade Tom Wolfe. Wolfe is undoubtedly a better writer than Thompson, but he's also an easier writer. Wolfe has worn well because his detached irony suits us. His cool style is ours. Wolfe responded to his lunatic age with bemusement. Thompson responded to it with ferocity, and ferocity is not comfortable these days.
B etween 1967 and 1973, when Thompson was, he wrote with crazed, out-of-control, phantasmagoric violence. But he was living in crazed, out-of-control, phantasmagoric, violent times. A nation that had been placid suddenly raged with race riots and assassinations, manipulated by a crooked, villainous president and trapped in a terrible war. Thompson, an idealist, was appalled. He reacted to madness by writing (and behaving) madly. A quarter-century later, the prose looks deranged, and it is. But it came by its derangement honestly.
Thompson's first gonzo piece--the mishmash of raw notes and vitriol that became his trademark--was a feral account of the Kentucky Derby. It was not intended to run in raw form, but--according to the most appealing account--Thompson was so horrified by the Kent State massacre, which occurred while he was writing, that he was unable to make his notes into a coherent piece.
T hompson's notoriety has also overshadowed his fine early style. Hell's Angels and the two Fear and Loathing (Las Vegas and On the Campaign Trail '72) books seethe. His words club and bully. Thompson's screeds and ad hominem attacks are worthy heirs to H.L. Mencken. As much as any writer of his generation, Thompson shook American political writing from the coma of the '50s. His savage, profane descriptions of Nixon, his mockery of Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, his characterization of any enemy as a "Nazi" or "the fourth Reich" or "the sixth Reich" enlivened (and, yes, debased) political debate. (Click for a couple of examples.) When Dan Burton calls Clinton a "scumbag," he owes a tip of the cap to Thompson.
But if the young Hunter is being rejected too easily, the elderly Hunter is being welcomed too kindly. In a certain segment of lefty society, Thompson has become a much revered elder. The current image of Thompson is that of a hilarious, endearing old goat who's coasting out his three score and ten. He doesn't merit such niceness. Thompson has more than just squandered his talent (what prodigy doesn't?), he has betrayed himself. He's a romantic who has become a cynic. He was once filled with passion. Now he fakes it for money.
(Thompson, of course, is not the only '60s vet who is disillusioned. But he gave no quarter to anyone who disappointed him, so he certainly doesn't deserve any quarter from us now.)
T oday, Thompson is part Beavis, part whore. He still behaves like an adolescent moron. He's a freakish Peter Pan--the juvenile delinquent who wouldn't grow up. He ignites kegs of dynamite in his Aspen, Colo., backyard. To ring in the new year in 1997, he reportedly blew up a Cadillac. He gropes female guests, watches porn, drinks monstrously, smokes more, and uses drugs. There's something unbearably sad about a 60-year-old man who still takes drugs.
Thompson's real problem isn't that he indulges himself, it's that he's lazy. (He once called himself, with a flash of perfect insight, a "mean, lazy hillbilly.") Thompson used to be a fabulous reporter. He reported masterfully on the '72 campaign and the Hell's Angels. He exaggerated and lied, but he was there--he befriended weirdos and freaks, made common cause with the dregs of society, stirred trouble, listened. At some point in the '70s, Thompson realized he didn't need to bother. He was a celebrity. Thompson's writing retreated from the outside world. He hasn't had a new thought for 20 years. A shocking number of his recent articles are based on something he saw on television.
Thompson is no longer Hunter S. Thompson: He performs a Hunter S. Thompson routine. (Doonesbury's Duke character is not the only Thompson cartoon. Thompson himself is a Thompson cartoon.) He works himself into a fake froth; does some calculated, halfhearted gonzo writing; then collects a fat check. He has become as repetitious, pontificating, and slothful as the worst D.C. pundit--as ridiculous as the political reporters he mocked in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72. Thompson poured acid on Nixon because he honestly believed Nixon was a devil. He pours acid on Clinton because, well, that's what someone pays him to do.
Editors--though fewer and fewer of them--still shell out top dollar for this Hunter S. Thompson routine. Colleges still pay for his slurred, mangled "speeches." His books are still, astonishingly, best sellers (even his wretched new ones). Apparently there are enough 18-year-old book buyers in the first flush of marijuana to keep Hunter in tequila and narcotics for the rest of his life.
In 1967, a 14-year-old kid wrote Thompson a fan letter saying that Hell's Angels had inspired him to join a motorcycle gang. An alarmed Thompson replied by telling the boy to do his own thing, not imitate others, and warning him about what was wrong with the Angels: "The best of the Angels--the guys you might want to sit down and talk to--have almost all played that game for a while and then quit for something better. The ones who are left are almost all the kind who can't do anything else, and they're not much fun to talk to. They're not smart, or funny, or brave, or even original. They're just Old Punks, and that's a lot worse than being a Young Punk. They're not even happy; most of them hate the lives they lead, but they can't afford to admit it because they don't know where else to go, or what else to do. That's what makes them mean."
That is what Thompson is today: an Old Punk; not smart or funny or brave or even original. And he sure doesn't know what else to do.
Click to read about Thompson's glory days and for two of his political profiles.