Hunter S. Thompson: The Great Shark Hunter

Hunter S. Thompson killed himself yesterday, as readers of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the frantic late-night emails from their most self-styled 'degenerate' friends knows.

It's sad news, of course, and the cynical parts of us are bracing for the outpouring of articles and appreciations from sources predictable (Rolling Stone, which brought the world some of Thompson's best—and worst—works) to unpredictable (The New Yorker? unsigned Times editorial?).

The better parts of us are trying to remember the work instead of the insane, over-the-top persona—which isn't easy to do, since Hunter S. Thompson without his insane, over-the-top persona is like Superman without his super powers.

Thompson—or, 'Dr. Thompson,' a respectful appellation used, it seemed, in the same way that small town denizens refer to a beloved town elder, someone to turn to for advice and guidance— is probably responsible for more young journalists' (and would be journalists') careers than any other writer in the last 30 years. Have you ever seen someone carrying around a battered paperback of All the President's Men? Probably not. But look at the bookshelves of most young writers (usually men, it seems) and you'll find a copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas battered beyond belief, underlined to the point of illegibility, and cherished as some sort of holy object, as if its close scrutiny could transubstantiate any privileged suburban school paper nerd into a hard-drinking, dangerous-drugging, deadline-blowing gonzo madman.

There's just too much in Fear and Loathing to quote in honor of Thompson. The book is too dense with sharp passages ("This place is like the Army: the shark ethic prevails—eat the wounded. In a closed society where everyone's guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity") and what now seems like foreshadowing:

"KILL THE BODY AND THE HEAD WILL DIE"

This line appears in my notebook, for some reason.
Don't let the end of Thompson's life fool you: Fear and Loathing is a funny, hopeful book.

Among the many depressing things about Thompson's suicide is the fact that for an old cynic, Thompson could be mushy and idealistic (all that talk of the end of "the Movement"), and in his writing you can see a yearning for social change, for progress. There was also a lot of patriotism of the old "Don't Tread on Me" sort.

You see it especially in this, perhaps the most famous passage from Fear and Loathing which (we gotta admit) is underlined in our own dog-eared copy of the book:

But our trip was different. It was a classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in the national character. It was a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country—but only for those with true grit. And we were chock full of that.
Rest in peace, Doc.

[Hunter Thompson portrait via capitolbookcafe]