|Hunter S. Thompson shot himself in the head yesterday. He was 67. While the
reports don't refer to a suicide note, it is safe to assume that a lifetime
of drugs and booze had taken their psychic toll. Since he had also been in
severe pain from back surgery, an artificial hip, and a broken leg, it is
possible that suicide was chosen as a relief from physical pain. In some
ways, his departure evokes Spalding Grey jumping off the Staten Island
ferry. Both men were icons of the post-Vietnam era, who made good livings
telling stories about themselves and their turbulent times.
Along with the politically conservative dandy Tom Wolfe, Thompson was a
pioneer of "new journalism," which tried to blur the lines between fiction
and journalism. In Thompson's case, this meant projecting himself as a
major character in whatever he wrote about, from presidential politics to
motorcycle gangs. It also meant striving for a more literary effect that is
common in journalism, especially the neutral tone that accompanies the
newsweeklies and papers like the NY Times. Hunter Thompson's packaging of
conventional liberal thinking with purple prose has parallels with Norman
Mailer's post-1960s journalism. Both men in fact were sought after guests
on late night television.
Although Thompson carefully cultivated the image of a rebel, he was
actually very much a product of the mainstream media. He lived in Aspen,
Colorado, a resort town favored by the super-rich. He started out as a copy
boy for Time Magazine, but made his reputation in the pages of Rolling
Stone, a magazine that epitomized the co-optation of 1960s counterculture.
It was always difficult to figure out whether New Journalism could be
relied on to present nothing but the facts. For example, in 1990 Thompson
reported that while waiting for a Jimmy Carter speech to end, he went out
to the car for a handful of pills and a quart of bourbon. Supposedly, when
FBI agents spotted a small arsenal in his open trunk, they didn't worry
about an assassination attempt after discovering his identity. Instead they
spent the night drinking with Thompson and comparing weapons. Don't blame
me if I find this hard to swallow.
It is not too difficult to see the influence of Hunter Thompson on P.J.
O'Rourke, a "bad boy" of the ultraright. O'Rourke is infamous for traveling
around to various 3rd world cities and reporting on the disgusting natives
to his frat boy friends. Although Hunter Thompson has a reputation for
progressive politics, he was not above locker room taunts at the outcasts
of bourgeois society himself. In a fawning tribute to Thompson on
marccooper.com, we discover this quote from 1994: "Why bother with
newspapers, if this is all they offer? Agnew was right. The press is a gang
of cruel faggots." It is interesting that Thompson was using language like
this as late as 1994. One wonders if he would have used the word "nigger"
as freely. It is also interesting that Cooper would not feel troubled by
such language. I guess that as one begins to drift into the neoconservative
camp, a sure sign that you are "one of the boys" is a willingness to show
that you are not "PC". I myself am PC when it comes to language like this.
The other thing that comes to mind is the possibility that Hunter
Thompson's brand of "gonzo journalism" might account for the problems of
people like Stephen Glass, who had trouble separating fact from fiction,
while interjecting himself into his sensationalistic tales. In a piece on
software piracy for the New Republic, he threw this business about a prior
job into his story:
"For all practical purposes, the male rats were my employees. I paid good
studs with extra food. Bad studs got two warnings and were then terminated
(with no severance pay). I threw myself into my work. I became a master of
rat love. I even tested the effect of music on sex: Indian is better than
classical which is better than jazz. Other researchers would bring me their
celibate rats, begging me to use my powers of rodent romance. When all else
failed, I would pimp one of my most prolific Don Juans to frustrated
colleagues. The other researchers were grateful."
Although not as egregious a case as Stephen Glass, Boston Globe reporter
Mike Barnicle was forced to resign in 1998 when it was revealed that he had
made up numerous columns, like one involving two children, one white and
one black, who became friends after being hospitalized with cancer.
Like any other fad, New Journalism is not what it once was. Tom Wolfe
decided that straight out fiction was more to suitable for his gifts, such
as they are, and now writes novels pretty exclusively. Norman Mailer is
pretty much retired and Thompson had begun to imitate himself in recent
years, relying on hackwork for the sports outlet, espn.com.
Like many other conveyors of conventional liberal thought, Thompson felt
compelled to denounce Ralph Nader last year: "I voted for Ralph Nader in
2000, but I won't make that mistake again. The joke is over for Nader. He
was funny once, but now he belongs to the dead." I'll not comment on the