It seems obligatory to mourn the death of Hunter S. Thompson, but any sadness is for the loss of a person, not a writer. Tellingly, most obituaries yesterday referred to Thompson as the writer of “Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72,” all written and published more than three decades ago, although there have been some 11 books since, not to mention ongoing, unanthologized writings in everything from Rolling Stone to ESPN.com.
Thompson’s writing atrophied rapidly after the mid-1970s, slipping quickly from audacious, swashbuckling defiance to autistic, limping parody. Whether trapped within misfiring synapses or the straits of fame, in which he couldn’t report without overwhelming whatever story he was on the scene to observe, Thompson began to repeat himself, reflexively and predictably lashing out at people, engaging in baroquely meaningless hyperbole, leaning on mood rather than data, capitalizing things with ponderous preciousness.
Countless writers, including myself, made the mistake of trying to write like Thompson, and so did Thompson. It’s an easy mistake to make: The early writing is genius.
His stuff is exhilarating, hilarious, freeing. One of my all-time favorite pieces of journalism — it is a credit to Thompson that I cannot immediately name any others — is “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan,” a long look at racial troubles in Los Angeles that is nearly as notable for being the work interrupted for Thompson’s life-changing trip to Las Vegas. In addition to being a masterpiece of tone and exposition, “Strange Rumblings” shows there’s value in breaking the rules, especially when up against impossible odds. This was important to La Raza in its fight against an oppressive culture, to Thompson as a reporter dealing with liars and to Thompson as a journalist inculcated in an impossibly rigid structure of third-person narrative and inverted-pyramid leads. There is no way Thompson could have done justice to the story without mentioning himself in it; to avoid doing so would have hobbled it cruelly and pointlessly.
But not every story needs that, and Thompson found himself unable to work any other way. As much as he relied on the style, editors demanded it; Running magazine, for instance, sold Thompson on covering the Honolulu Marathon by calling it a “Gonzo gathering of Body Nazis.” In an ideal world, perhaps he would have discovered this for himself.
No one could keep up with Thompson’s intake of alcohol and drugs, not even Thompson himself. (He told George Plimpton that “Obviously, my drug use is exaggerated or I would be long since dead.”) And no one should replace their own natural style of writing with Thompson’s. Again, not even Thompson.
I wish Thompson were not dead. I wish things were otherwise. I mourn him. But the mourning started long ago.