Friday, February 25, 2005

The Weird Turn Pro

You know, I thought I could get away with a slug line about Hunter S. Thompson’s passing, a head nod, recognition of his life and work, and then pass on to the next thing. But here it is nearly a week later and people are still talking about it. Blogs, newspaper columns, tributes. I even was channel surfing a few nights ago and saw a local newsreader doing an on-the-set standup with someone who had worked with the man. All of them are saying good things, offering comforting spin, speculating on his self-inflicted death, and trying to be honest in his name. But there is just So Much Of It.

Arthur Miller passed on a few weeks back, and got the head-nod and a mention of “Death of a Salesman”. Sandra Dee, beloved by a slightly-older generation than mine, died and got the same passing recognition. HST, on the other hand, is getting near-Reaganesque attention, which would probably amuse him, as it would give him the chance to snarl at the mendacity of his mourners.

So here’s mine.

The big thing I want to pass on to everyone who never read him is that Hunter Thompson is not Uncle Duke from Doonesbury. Yeah, the comic strip version is based on him, but expecting Thompson to be equivalent to the curmudgeonly drug-inhaling greedhead of the strip is misleading and dangerous. It’s like seeing a Yogi Bear cartoon and trying to use the knowledge gained to deal with the grizzly rooting around in your trash. It’s a recipe for a mauling.

You read Thompson for the first time and you wonder, “What is he on?” (and if you get more than two paragraphs in, he’ll likely tell you). I don’t think that Gonzo Journalism is journalism at all, though it has a better ring than “Gonzo Essayist.” Journalism was the excuse, the vector, the delivery system for something that was very, very different. Thompson was a journalist in the same way Twain was a newspaperman, because you don’t know where else to put him. He put personal experience into his work, and pushed that experience to the limit. That’s different than most media talking heads who merely put personal opinion into their work (or, worst of all, recite approved corporate lines). You often doubt Thompson’s veracity, and that was part of the point. He’s not easy. He’s not comforting.

I’m not even sure I want to live in his world. If August Wilson can be typecast as an African-American playwright, then Hunter S. Thompson is a European-American writer. His subjects are strongly causcasian, and caucasian-with-money at that – motorcycle gangs, whiskey, Vegas, the Kentucky Derby, guns, The Superbowl, blow cocaine, American politics. And they are covered in the style that pries away any façade of gentility and reveals them for the sweaty, grunting, venal beasts that they are. And like August Wilson, you quickly realize that you have wandered into the deep end of the pool, and you’d better keep your wits about you or you’ll be dragged under.

Hunter has given me words that I use: Gonzo. Mojo wire. Lono. Salah. Ether binge. Bad craziness. He opened doors that I would in other circumstances have rather left shut, and de-mythologized a lot of sacred cows. He was swimming beyond the reef, in the deeper waters where the dark shapes moved, and brought his reports back to those of us paddling around in the lagoon. I think a lot of media attention comes from that realization – where he’s gone, not a lot of people would or could follow.

Now here’s the last thing, the weird thing, the gonzo thing, the Gaea-earth-mind thing of it all. Sunday afternoon, I’m sitting downstairs, watching some cooking show on PBS. They cut to fund-raising, and my mind wanders over the bookcases in the room, and I see “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, and think I should read it again sometime. Odd thing is, I don’t have a copy of that book anymore, and it’s not on the shelves, but for a moment, I saw it. Only later in the day do I read the news off the net of the Doctor’s passing and discover that the book's not really there. It wasn’t that the retort of pistol shot finally reached the West Coast, or even the discovery of the body or the announcement to the media - the time frame doesn’t line up. But for a moment I was visited by the spirit of the recently-deceased, and his message was one that every writer understands.

You want a testimonial? Go read the man. More later,