In 1968, while tramping through New Hampshire on the presidential campaign trail, Richard Nixon asked one of his aides to pick a representative from the press pool, someone knowlegeable about football with whom the former vice-president and rabid sports fan could relax with while on a long car journey. At the airport the young journalist headed towards Nixon with the intent of shaking hands:
“But suddenly I was seized from behind and jerked away from the plane. Good God, I thought as I reeled backwards, Here We Go… ‘Watch Out!’ somebody was shouting. ‘Get the cigarette!’ A hand lashed out of the darkness to snatch the cigarette out of my mouth, then other hands kept me from falling and I recognized the voice of Nick Ruwe, Nixon’s chief advance man for New Hampshire, saying, ‘God damnit, Hunter, you almost blew up the plane!’
I shrugged. He was right. I’d been leaning over the fuel tank with a burning butt in my mouth. Nixon smiled and reached out to shake hands again, while Ruwe muttered darkly and the others stared down at the asphalt.”
(from Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72)
This passage contains much of what was essential about Hunter S Thompson. An obsession with sports and politics, an anarchic recklessness that bordered on the lunatic and an inherent mistrust of anyone in a position of power all presented in the most innocent of ways, as if chaos formed spontaneously around him through no action of his own. He was found earlier today, dead of a self-inflicted gun wound at the age of 67.
Along with Tom Wolfe, Thompson was the foremost proponent of The New Journalism. His own brand of this, which he called ‘Gonzo’, relied on the active presence of the writer in his own, partially fictionalized, narrative. It’s inception came in 1966 with the publication of Hells Angels, a searching study of the growing cult of motorcycle gangs a major part in which was played by Thompson himself – he was later brutally ‘stomped’ by one of the gangs in question after an argument over money.
He started his writing career as a renegade sports reporter for the official newspaper of Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. Shortly after his discharge (unsurprisingly, under a cloud) Thompson briefly worked in New York before embarking on a lengthy series of travels in South America where he honed his style in a number of pithy despatches capturing the seedy side of life south of the border .
Thompson will be best remembered for his 1972 book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Now both protagonists are dead or missing (his sidekick Oscar Acosta – known in the book as ‘Dr Gonzo’ – disappeared in the mid-1970s) we will never know exactly how much of this drug-fuelled rampage, part travelogue, part sports report, part intoxicated breakdown of the state of the nation c.1970, was true. What is undeniable is its importance and influence among a whole generation of writers .
However, his greatest work is probably Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. Thompson’s blow-by-blow account of the 1972 election is breathlessly jet-propelled reportage that combines a fierce idealism with a brutally realist cynicism. It is the perfect example of Thompson’s character as writer – at once certain the worst would happen while powerfully indignant at the failure of the best. In true Gonzo style, Thompson did not limit himself to writing about politics. In 1970 he ran a suitably doomed campaign for Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado on a ticket that included the legalisation of all drugs and renaming Aspen “Fat City”.
The late 70’s onwards saw a decline in Thompson’s work. He never produced anything as focussed or brilliant as the two ‘Fear and Loathing’ books though his last major published work, Kingdom of Fear, has traces of the old genius and the two collections of his correspondence (The Proud Highway and Fear and Loathing in America) are of some interest. Appropriately his best piece of writing in this period was his Rolling Stone obituary for Richard Nixon.
Thompson was a raving egoist. He was also, arguably, a one-trick pony whose prominence declined as the novelty wore off, kept going only by perenniel revivals of interest in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (indeed, his popularity in recent years is pretty much due entirely to Terry Gilliam’s 1998 cinematic adaptation). However, he should also be saluted for the inspiration his unique voice sparked in others, and the almost palpable rage he vented over the collapse of 1960s ideals in favour of Lyndon Johnson’s slick pragmatism and the dark savagery he saw embodied in Richard Nixon. He was the last writer to really display the world of politics as it should be, stripped bare of suits, civility and sanity. To many of us, he will be greatly missed.