Hunter S. Thompson | Critical Essay by David McCumber

This literature criticism consists of approximately 7 pages of analysis & critique of Hunter S. Thompson.
This section contains 1,896 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by David McCumber

Critical Essay by David McCumber

SOURCE: "The Mad Adventure Continues," in The Los Angeles Times, December 9, 1996, p. 1.

In the following essay, McCumber discusses the impact of Thompson's work and his current projects.

"I have weird dreams," Hunter Stockton Thompson says. "I never expected to be looking over my life, page by page. It's like an animal eating its own intestines."

It is 3:45 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, and he is perched like a barn owl on a high stool in his kitchen, eating not innards but a TV dinner, microwaved and then slathered with a hellbroth of mysterious mustards, chutneys and chili sauces. The plate suddenly lows with an unearthly light. I take this at first to be the sign of a chemical reaction, but it is actually the work of Thompson's newest gadget—the man is a gadget freak—a motorized, illuminated pepper grinder. The spotlighted meal is rapidly covered with black flakes, sort of like Pittsburgh in the early 1900s.

This dish alone would probably give most people nightmares for a week, but the famed journalist says the weird dreams he's been having are a byproduct of a gratifying but grueling forced march through his past, caused by the 25th anniversary last month of the publication of his rolling pharmacy classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and also by the preparation of the first volume of his collected letters, due in the spring from Villard Books.

Mind you, he's enjoying himself. As he sups, he rolls videotape, and his big-screen TV flickers with images from several stops on the Hunter S. Thompson Fun-Finding Tour of the past few weeks: himself, strolling into Rolling Stone mogul Jann Wenner's office and blasting his longtime editor with a fire extinguisher; a mob scene at the party Wenner and Random House threw for him in New York, commemorating the reissuing of F&L in Vegas by the Modern Library; and speaking gigs at such disparate venues as Harvard Law School and Johnny Depp's Sunset Strip hipper-than-thou spot, the Viper Room.

Wait a minute. Rewind the tape. The Modern Library? Hunter S. Thompson, acid-swilling bad boy of American letters, rubbing literary shoulders with Proust and Dos Passos, Faulkner and Fitzgerald?

You bet, bubba. It was inevitable. Not only has Thompson cranked out a stream of bestsellers (Hell's Angels, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, The Great Shark Hunt, Generation of Swine, Songs of the Doomed, Better Than Sex), but along the way he has become revered for his political acuity, personal excesses and utterly inimitable prose style.

Hell's Angels was hailed as a groundbreaking book in 1967, and Las Vegas seared the country four years later with what the New York Times called "a kind of mad, corrosive prose poetry that picks up where Norman Mailer … left off and explores what Tom Wolfe left out."

So when everybody from Wolfe to Mick Jagger to Matt Dillon to Depp to Ralph Steadman, his illustrator and frequent coconspirator, showed up to honor him in New York, the Modern Library anointing was placed in clear perspective: Thompson has pulled off the difficult trick of being an icon of not only his own generation but of the ones that have followed.

Add to all this adulation the fact that Rhino Films, an off-shoot of Rhino Records, has just announced plans to translate Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for the screen (with Depp playing Thompson), and it becomes evident that the Doctor of Gonzo is on a serious roll.

Surprised? So is he, in a way. "I never expected to live this long," Thompson jokes, "and a lot of other people didn't expect me to either."

The rather startling truth is that Thompson, 59, seems to have come out of that crazed quarter of a century in champion form. He has always had the constitution of a moose (he is from stout Kentucky hill country stock), and the poster boy for the drug culture seems poised to continue his craft well into the next century.

For now, there is a book to get to press.

Thompson finishes his late lunch, or early breakfast, or whatever, pours himself a tumbler of Chivas and turns his attention to a mock-up of the dust jacket for The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, subtitled The Fear & Loathing Letters, Volume I, 1955–67. ("Volume II will make some people wish that wolves had stolen them from their cradles," Thompson cracks with glee.) The book features an introduction by the novelist William Kennedy, a longtime Thompson friend and confidant.

It is just one more surprise that throughout Thompson's rather turbulent life, he has kept a carbon of every letter he has written—amounting to several thousand pages of typescript. He is an inveterate correspondent, and the letters provide not only illuminating insights into his development as a literary figure, his personal life and his impressions of the culture of the times, but by sheer volume represent a major percentage of his life's work.

"RED HERE," Thompson scrawls on the proof. "Too Big," "Kill photo on spine" and "Outline with gold here" quickly follow. He is, after all, a visual artist as well as a writer. (His bullet-riddled, paint-spattered images of prominent figures command five-figure prices.)

It is 5 a.m. and Dr. Thompson's workday is progressing nicely. He finishes his design instructions and picks up the telephone, which he is famed for using as a lethal weapon. This time, the target is friendly: Douglas Brinkley, the book's editor.

After a thoroughgoing discussion of the manuscript's status, talk turns to an upcoming tribute to Thompson in his hometown of Louisville. Plans are in place: Warren Zevon will open the show; George McGovern has said he will attend; the venue has been changed to the city's finest concert hall to accommodate an expected crowd of nearly 2,000; he is booked into the presidential suite at the elegant Brown Hotel; his mother will be whisked to the event by limousine; and the same local government that once locked Thompson up as a juvenile delinquent will present him with a key to the city.

At 6:20, things get ugly over the telephone. He is trying to call a friend at the University of Indiana, and the switchboard should have opened 20 minutes earlier, but for some reason the nighttime recorded message is still on.

"I want to know why you people aren't at work," he snarls into the telephone. "You are answerable to the taxpayers, you know. What's the matter with you? I will find out who you are and why you're still asleep. Get a grip on yourself."

He slams down the telephone. The ghost of a little-boy grin flashes, then departs just as quickly. Thompson freshens his drink and moves to the next item on the agenda: a little fun. He cranks a sheet of paper into his typewriter (yes, he plays around with a hopped-up Macintosh, even surfs the Internet, but when it's time for work, it's the Selectric every time) and raps out the following:

Dearest Eric:

This waiting is driving me crazy. I miss you so much I can scream. Soon I will get my hands on you. I have a huge brain tumor. We can get naked and go out to the car…. Sweet Dreams—Zan."

A chuckle escapes his throat as he proofreads this horrifying missive (entire contents cannot be included here). He couples it with a photocopied portrait of a woman with an impressive array of body piercings and signs it with a lipsticked, puckered mouth print. Within minutes, it is winging through the fax lines to various people in his Rolodex: several reporters and a network news executive; a White House staffer; the mayor of Aspen, Colo.; and then, for good measure, several randomly selected souls who will get a nasty shock upon waking simply because their numbers happen to be programmed into Thompson's machine. "The fat is in the fire," he says. "The flute is in the wind."

It's no accident that Aspen's mayor is one of the unfortunate recipients. Ever since Thompson ran for Pitkin County Sheriff in 1970 and lost by a handful of votes, he has been deeply involved in local politics and now is by far the most influential political figure in the county. When he takes a position on an issue, it results in front-page headlines in Aspen's newspapers. He proved his power a year ago when he took on the skiing and business establishments, spear-heading a fight against expansion of the Aspen airport—and won by a margin of more than a thousand votes.

But the victory carried a price. Just after 2 a.m. that election day, Thompson was returning from the climactic antiairport rally when an Aspen police officer pulled him over. A Breathalyzer test indicated that he wasn't legally drunk, but Thompson was eventually charged with a misdemeanor, driving while impaired. The arresting officer said he stopped Thompson because he had driven six inches over the yellow line for about 40 feet. Thompson could have pleaded guilty and paid a $50 fine, but he charged that the arrest was clearly political, and has been fighting the case ever since.

"I'm spending $30,000 to $40,000 fighting a misdemeanor traffic ticket because this case is about whether a rogue cop has the right to stop people for no good reason," Thompson says. "It's a political bust and I will win."

A trial has been set for March. City officials declined to comment on the case. On this morning, Thompson calls one of his lawyers, criminal defense superstar Gerald Goldstein.

"I don't want them to drop the charges," Thompson tells Goldstein. "I want the cop to go on trial first, then me." He closes with an aphorism straight out of the '60s: "Today's pig is tomorrow's bacon."

You get the feeling that Thompson, a self-confessed political junkie, is getting his fix in the only arena possible. He declined to cover the presidential campaign this year because it was so lackluster. "I don't know if national politics will ever be fun again," he says.

What will he do for fun? Well, there is a novel—working title, "Polo Is My Life"—that Thompson hopes to resume once all the fuss dies down. Thompson has always blurred the lines between journalism and literature, and whether he approaches his work as fiction or nonfiction, the result is sure to be interesting.

The late Edward Abbey, no slouch at both approaches himself, said it succinctly when he commented on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas years ago: "Among journalists I have but one hero, and that is Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. I honor him because he reports the simple facts, in plain language, of what he sees around him. His style is mistaken for fantastic drug-crazed exaggeration, but that was to be expected. As always in this country, they only laugh at you when you tell the truth. He is really much more than a journalist. Not a journalist at all, but one who sees—a seer."

It is 8 a.m. Dr. Thompson's friend at the University of Indiana calls back, unnerved by the message left on the machine. A couple of responses to the fax have also come in. The original faxes were sent anonymously, bearing no return name or number, but it seems that the style is quite unmistakable.

It is daylight now, and a light snow is falling. "Let's gas up the Jeep and go to town," Hunter Thompson says, and the grin returns. "I'll show you where I crossed the yellow line."

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This section contains 1,896 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by David McCumber
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