July 11, 2008

Buy the ticket, take the ride...mahalo

Thanks to YesButNoButYes for pointing out that there's a new documentary on Hunter S Thompson out in the theaters now: Gonzo: the life and work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

The flick hasn't made its way to Cincy just yet - the Esquire on 7/25, in case you were wondering - and I'm going to be out of town when it does appear. On the likely chance that it won't be around for more than the first week of release, it looks like I'll be driving up to the Neon in Dayton to make sure to see it in the theater.

But I'm not really here to post about the documentary...

I'm here to post about the good Doctor, himself...Raoul Duke...Hunter...

I picked up Hunter sometime when I was in college, first picking up The Great Shark Hunt, the first volume in his Gonzo Papers series, a collection of Thompson's articles from various sources. The shocking mixture of brutally honest reportage, psychadelically impossible situations, and brilliant phrasing grabbed me from the get go, particularly "The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat", "Strange Rumblings in Aztlan", and "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved" - the last of which is available in full here.

I devoured Shark Hunt quickly and headed straight into Hells Angels, Hunter's first-published book, the non-fiction novel. Angels is Hunter's most straight-forward book, a phenomenal and incisive exploration of the San Bernadino and Oakland chapters of the Angels including their massive and terrifying-to-the-communities funeral for their leader Sonny Barger and Hunter's eventual beating at the hands of the Angels when he finally publishes the first of his articles that lead to the book.

From there it was onward to the Fear and Loathings - Las Vegas (easily his most well-known work) and the Campaign Trail '72 his brilliant reportage - both truthful and somewhat fictional (the lines certainly blur in both of these books) - was one of the first pieces of political writing that grabbed me enough to read cover to cover, something I've done at least twice with each of most of Hunter's full-length books.

I've been through others of Hunter's books - Better than Sex, Songs of the Doomed, Generation of Swine, Curse of Lono - and they are clearly the works of a man who was bit by bit becoming a victim of his own persona, periodically able to rise above the miasma that he had created for himself. People have reported that Hunter often felt driven to be more and more excessive with each event; to take the drugs, the craziness, the Gonzo to new levels with each article; and only rarely did those attempts result in writing even approaching the level of his earliest works, and we were/are the poorer for that, but as we learned from Blade Runner, the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and you have burned so very brightly, [Hunter].

Somehow, Hunter just wasn't a man meant for this world.

He moved through Louisville's society but found himself resisting the easy path, telling of a time when he and some friends robbed a convenience store across from their apartment on three consecutive nights, thinking that a fourth night would have been pushing their luck. From there, Thompson headed into the Air Force where he writes that he was a pretty miserable airman, unwilling or unable to fit into the strict heirarchy that is required in the military.

From there Thompson headed to New York - fired by Time for insubordination, then San Juan and California...
Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era — the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. . . .

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bull****, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time — and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.

My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights — or very early mornings — when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder's jacket . . . booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change) . . . but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that. . . .

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
...and onward through South America (for an outstanding run of articles that make up part three of Shark Hunt) and then to his final home of the next forty or so years in and just outside of Aspen, Colorado.

In Aspen Hunter found himself at odds with the establishment - imagine that, huh - and unsuccessfully running for sheriff on the Freak Power campaign, pledging the...
  • ...legalization of drugs on a recreational basis (although profiteering dealers would be prosecuted harshly.) Thompson did make a concession on the drugs issue - he promised that if elected, he would not eat mescaline whilst on duty.
  • ...tearing up of parking lots and sidewalks for more grassy areas.
  • ...demolishing of any buildings that would block the view of the mountains.
  • ...renaming of Aspen "Fat City" to scare off the rich investors that Thompson felt were ruining the city.
  • ...firing of the majority of the conservative county officials and bureaucrats.
Thompson lost the election only because the Democratic and Republican candidates met and agreed to pool their support and resources to defeat him.

It was there in Aspen that Thompson set up his armed compound outside the city limits, shooting his guns into the hillside...
I made several attempts to make myself clear: Just a neighbor come to call and ask the doctor's advice about gobbling some LSD in my shack just down the hill from his house. I did, after all, have weapons. And I liked to shoot them—especially at night, when the great blue flame would leap out, along with all that noise...and, yes, the bullets, too. We couldn't ignore that. Big balls of lead/alloy flying around the valley at speeds up to 3700 feet per second.

But I always fired into the nearest hill or, failing that, into blackness. I meant no harm; I just liked the explosions. And I was careful never to kill more than I could eat.
Thompson came eventually to hold court at that home, drinking, using drugs, changing wives, fathering children, being abusive, writing from time to time, and letting at least two actors - Bill Murray and Johnny Depp - both of whom portrayed the good doctor on screen.

Thompson killed himself in 2005, and we lost an amazingly talented writer and a deeply flawed man.

During my senior year in college, my mom got tickets to see Hunter speak in Louisville. I declined the invitation; partially because I had heard legendary tales of hig public appearances involving drunkenness and abuse toward the crowd, partially because I knew enough about Hunter - from a biography that I read that year - to know that I didn't want to celebrate the man over the writing, and partially because I have never quite bought into the cult of personality that often surrounds authors.

I don't want to shake hands with Chuck Palahniuk no matter how many of his books I enjoy. I don't want to chat with Stephen King even though his books have brought me so much joy. I don't want to thank Andrew Greig because of The Electric Brae.

And I certainly didn't want to meet Hunter S Thompson and possibly sully my love of his work by seeing that he's less than magical as a human being.

But I do want to reread The Great Shark Hunt again, and I will be seeing Gonzo next week when it comes out.

Do yourself a favor and give some of Thompson's early work a try...

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