Absent Friends

Scroll down on this long Guardian piece and you’ll find an obituary for Hunter Thompson, one of several featured writers who for one reason or another did not survive the last decade. It’s a pretty poor tribute, even though Tim Lott, unlike me, has retraced Thompson’s shaky Las Vegas steps. (He’s not the only one. I have heard that the Nevada highway patrol picks up a ‘significant percentage’ of people in wraparound shades with shitloads of drugs in their fireapple convertibles. Just a rumour, but still…)

It’s rare that I’m genuinely moved by the death of a public figure but Thompson’s suicide in 2005 hit me hard. There is no equivalent, no successor: Christopher Hitchens and Greg Palast are the only two journalists that even come close. 

The suicide note is especially painful: ‘Act your old age. Relax – this won’t hurt.’ You can actually feel him gearing himself, counselling himself to do it. Yes, he wanted the liberation of being able to end his life when he felt it was time: still, he had to coax himself to do it. Relax. This won’t hurt. This won’t hurt…

What people forget about HST is the discipline. Compare the tight, humming glory of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with Kerouac’s bloated, messy, overrated On the Road. The discipline was there from the beginning, in his early letters and fiction. To quote David Halberstam (or was it Mark Twain?) the Doctor knew that the difference between the right word and the nearly right word was everything, the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

It’s true that in later life he came to lose that discipline. There’s a sadness to HST’s later manias. He knew he was a serious fiction writer trapped in the body of a celebrity journalist. Even then, there were moments of true greatness, such as the classic obituary of Richard Nixon (‘a hubris-crazed monster from the bowels of the American dream with a heart full of hate and an overweening lust to be President’) and the touching, lyrical ‘Doomed Love on the Taco Stand’.

Yet even in his worst moments Thompson retained a lyricism that resonates long after the booze and coke has worn off. I’ll always remember that line from his foreword to volume two of the letters: ‘And may the right gods fall in love with you, like I did.’

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