The Brain of a Second-Rate Accountant?

Forever Weird
By JOE KLEIN, November 18, 2007

GONZO: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson.
By Jann S. Wenner and Corey Seymour.
Illustrated. 467 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $28.99.

On July 2, 1974, I started work as deputy Washington bureau chief for Rolling Stone magazine. My unlikely boss was Richard Goodwin, the former Kennedy speechwriter, who invited me to join him in temporary residence at Ethel Kennedy’s home in McLean, Va. (the owner was in Hyannis for the summer). On July 3, Hunter Thompson joined us. Much of what ensued that holiday weekend is lost in the mists of history and a fog of controlled substances. There were extensive conversations about the viability of renting a truck, filling it with rats and dumping them on the White House lawn. There was also an effort to remove all the Andy Williams songs from the Kennedy jukebox and replace them with Otis Redding. But mostly I remember having a marathon conversation with Hunter about books and writers, settling finally on Joseph Conrad’s exhortation in “Lord Jim”: “In the destructive element immerse!”

This was, no surprise, one of Hunter’s favorite lines, and it led him into an astonishingly candid assessment of his own career, which was then at its peak. He had published his two brilliant “Fear and Loathing” books, and he was worried about what came next. He didn’t want to become a dull parody of himself but feared he lacked the gumption to jump the gravy train. I asked if he’d ever thought about stowing the psychedelic pyrotechnics — his “gonzo” journalism — and sitting down and writing a serious, straight-ahead novel. Well, of course he had. But, he said, “Without that,” and he glanced over at the satchel in which he carried his array of vegetation and chemicals, “I’d have the brain of a second-rate accountant.”

Hunter Thompson was always much more, and sometimes a bit less, than the sum of his ribald public persona. In compiling this oral history, Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour could easily have succumbed to the same temptation that Hunter did: to celebrate the myth, to recount a numbing parade of hilarious, drug-addled Hunter stories, and to miss the man. Happily, they have produced a rigorous and honest piece of work. “Gonzo” is a wonderfully entertaining chronicle of Hunter’s wild ride, but it is also a detailed, painful account of his self-destructive immersions; the brutality he visited upon his wife, Sandy; and the anguish of a life that veered from inspired performance art to ruinous solipsism. It’s especially good to be reminded that Wenner, in addition to being a successful media mogul and perpetual gossip item, has been a journalist of real distinction, with the ability to find talented editors like Seymour, who, I assume, did most of the actual cutting and pasting to create the book’s unflagging pace from interviews with 112 sources, ranging from Jimmy Carter to Johnny Depp. It was Wenner’s patience and indulgence that enabled Thompson to produce his very best work; Wenner’s vision made Rolling Stone, in the early 1970s, one of the most exciting publications in American history.

Hunter Thompson was born in Louisville, Ky., in 1937 and, from adolescence on, seemed intent on becoming a classic American Literary Character, part of the outlaw slipstream that produced Whitman, Twain, Hemingway, Guthrie, Mailer and Kerouac. This might have been a staggeringly banal career choice — there’s a testosterone-addled, troublemaking puer aeternus spewing fountains of self-absorbed gush in every high school — but Thompson actually turned out to have a distinctly American genius for comic hyperbole. He was the son of an insurance salesman who died when Hunter was in high school and an alcoholic mother who didn’t have a prayer of controlling her wild child. He was antsy, violent, a lover of books and guns, a member of the prestigious Athenaeum Literary Association in Louisville and of a street gang of pranksters, most of whom were sons of prominent families. In his senior year of high school, Thompson was arrested with two others after one in his group stole a man’s wallet — this, after other scrapes with the law — and thrown in jail. Douglas Brinkley, Thompson’s literary executor, recalled: “Hunter wrote his mother these very philosophical letters from behind bars. … The buddies that he was with … were waltzing because they knew the judge, … he was the poor kid on the other side of the railroad tracks with no dad. The game was fixed.” The judge gave Thompson a choice of prison or the military; he chose the Air Force. One senses that Hunter saw the experience mostly as grist for his legend. No doubt it helped solidify his politics, such as they were — a blithe populist libertarianism, unencumbered by doctrine.

Thompson’s chronological adolescence is dispatched in a few pages here, but his militant juvenility lasts the entire book. Even near the end of his life, he was terrorizing his neighbors in Aspen, Colo. The lawyer Gerry Goldstein remembers an episode involving another lawyer, John Van Ness, and later the actor Jack Nicholson: “First Hunter placed these defrosted elk hearts on John’s front doorstep, and then he started throwing these stones he’d collected onto the tin roof of John’s house and just listened as they rolled down. Then he shot off a couple of rounds from a 9-millimeter and started playing a continuous looped tape of pigs or rabbits being slaughtered — a godforsaken screeching, curdling sound. This poor little girl came to the window screaming. Apparently Van Ness was out of town and this teenage girl was house-sitting for them. From there, he proceeded to Nicholson’s house, where he engaged in the same folly.”

Thompson was able to get away with such nonsense, and with his flagrant drug use, because he had befriended the local sheriff, who had an elastic sense of justice when it came to literary perps. Indeed, about the only person in this book who successfully confronts Hunter about his behavior is — amazingly — Bill Clinton, a fellow not known for public confrontations. But at a meeting in Little Rock, just after Clinton was nominated in 1992, Thompson braces the president-to-be with a question about the Fourth Amendment and drug searches. “He leaned back and did one of these long windup Hunter kind of things where everybody is supposed to be amused by it all, and Clinton wasn’t going to have any of it,” Wenner recalls. “Clinton came back with this really tough, aggressive answer involving his brother Roger’s cocaine problem and how he had seen the horrors and destruction of drugs.”

The writer William Greider picks up the story: “Hunter got up from the table right after Clinton’s response. He just stopped asking questions. … It was like the dream had been smashed, and what was the point of going on with this?”

The structural defect of oral history is that it is easy, given a life like Hunter’s, to lose track of the reason he was special in the first place: the inimitable, hilarious whoosh of words, the cascading skeins of hyperbolic invective that came so close to replicating the disoriented epiphanies of a drug trip. The authors occasionally lay in samples of Hunter’s writing, but not really his best stuff — although the rejection letter he donated to Rolling Stone to handle the hordes of would-be imitators does sing. “You worthless, acid-sucking piece of illiterate” you-know-what, it began. “Don’t ever send this kind of brain-damaged swill in here again.”

“I never had any doubt that at some point he was going to commit suicide,” recalls his son, Juan. Old age is a difficult concept for a perpetual adolescent. Hemingway couldn’t handle it, and Hunter went out the same way, though more elegantly: with a pistol rather than a shotgun. His best work was pretty much complete by the time I met him, in July of 1974. Indeed, Nixon’s collapse that summer was so garish — the tearful “my mother was a saint” sayonara — that it beggared any acid fantasy that Hunter might have produced. Reality had gone gonzo. There was nothing left to do except to play his designated role as Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, wandering the campus lecture circuit, swindling would-be publishers, entombed in a mausoleum of celebrity he had created for himself.

Joe Klein is a columnist for Time magazine and the author, most recently, of “Politics Lost.”


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