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Hunter S. Thompson shot himself in the head on Sunday. 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 fans. 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 unintended irony.
LOUIS PROYECT writes for SWANS. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org