The Cassander Canon: RIP HST

I’m currently on reverse sabbatical…taking time off from weekly updates to work on longer material with which to wow you next month.  In the meantime we’re doing a kind of greatest hits thing.  This is my obituary for Hunter S. Thompson, a Patron Saint around here at GS.

I was somewhere outside of Raleigh when the news began to take hold.

Not only dead, but suicide.  Gunshot to the head.  I tried to decipher it.  At first I began to think maybe it was just one of those miserable nights that all people who are fluent in the language of mind-altering chemicals have.  Unable to focus, bobbing in the vast sea of Inner Thought, sometimes dipping below the surface, sometimes rising back into coherency and Now.  Past and present slow dancing with each other in a lonely room.  Drunk and baffled or perhaps high and unmighty, solo-sitting in the kitchen and an idea, perhaps planted long ago, begins to sprout then flower.

I couldn’t get angry about it.  I didn’t feel misled, misused, or even abandoned.  I didn’t even feel that upset about the blabbering word jockeys that were chatting up the Good Doctor with deadlines in their minds instead of true love in their hearts.  It was another great study in cultural icon obituaries, where the words must be timely and the deceased himself must be reduced to a handful of sentences about his life with no true understanding.  And so, the world that never read much of Hunter or knew of him only as a relic got all they needed to know: drug abuser, volatile writer, disdainer of standard journalism.  Las Vegas, Woody Creek, Rolling Stone.  These things are slightly necessary, especially on a sub par holiday when everyone is waking up late and searching for Pop-tarts and something to occupy their time.But there was more, as always…

In the early days of my exposure to Hunter, I was madly infatuated.  I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, then the Rum Diary, then all four volumes of the Gonzo papers.  At that point in time, he was my consummate hero.  I never doubted what he said, never thought to give it a second thought as to whether anyone could actually live their life this way for any extended point in time without any damage.  I was in college, working for the school’s programming board, when I came across (somehow) Hunter’s literary agent’s phone number.  I called immediately and she gave me some warning.

“What you have to know is that you never know what you’re going to get with Hunter.  He’ll either be brilliant or so wasted that he’ll piss everyone off, even his fans, and walk off early, demanding to be taken home.  He hates crowds.”

I had her put in a word to him anyway.  I assumed that visiting a historical place like Kent State might be enough to tempt him away from Colorado.  It wasn’t.  And I learned my first lesson, that Hunter, like Kent State itself, lived in the now, and was eager to shove the bitter past behind, no matter how monumental it seemed nor how much notoriety it garnered.

And I also learned how Hunter existed, what he had created for himself: not just a persona that argued with his real personality like many writers, musicians, and artists face, but also an aura that was difficult to either nurture or kill.  He was, at heart, a deeply self-conscious man.  You can glean this from his first novel (which he abandoned before going to Puerto Rico), or in any video interview.  Included on the Criterion Collection’s edition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a great documentary made by the BBC in the late 70s/early 80s, and the man you see there is so radically different from the one Johnny Depp plays, that the first time you see it you feel gypped, but then, later, and with more understanding, you realize that it’s easy to reconcile the two.  There are clips of the speech he gave after losing the election for sheriff in Aspen, and you can tell that, even though in his campaign he was essentially throwing the new Fringe in the faces of a stodgy society and daring the people to face him that he still expected to win.  And the loss, as you can see on his face, deeply upset him.  You can see a man who is afraid to face a crowd of people outside the Chinese Theater in Los Angeles.  You can see what the reality of the morning after a long, crazy night when the cameras enter his messy hotel room, a visual that struck me as extremely apt and heartbreaking, a metaphor, yes, for his life in the public eye: there is the carnage, the remnants of joy and violence, but in the center of it all sits a man in his underwear who is not entirely proud of himself.

I believe that this was a man who had probably accomplished everything he wanted to a long time ago.  And in between that point and now, there was only the wait and the brief glimpses of what true wisdom could be gained if anyone really bothered to go and find out, but I think the fact that he was tied so unexpectedly to Nixon, to the Acid Craze, to Violence, that, after the wipeout and rearrangement of the past few decades, no one really thought to consult him about new evils, or new terrors…no one felt that he could shock anymore.  But that is not what people like me look for: mere shock and style.  Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 are two of the best history books ever written, and Hunter’s style only aids in the presentation of his research; it never hinders or overshadows it.  But this is what we do with our idols…we cast them in marble or copper and erect them, anchored to one spot in history, and the only time we climb up inside the pedestal is when we feel like seeing the same familiar view from inside out.

Hunter knew this, and this may have been just one more factor in a long-standing mood of dissatisfaction.  In the end, I think he may have always wanted to go out tragically like F. Scott Fitzgerald, but rather had to settle for the disconcerting method of Hemingway.  And those of us in the settling cloud, those of us with the reverberation of a gun blast taunting our ears, can only look on in Fear at the body then let the first wave of tears start to swell against an invisible, unknowable wall.