Monday, February 21, 2005

Dr. Gonzo, Down and Out In Aspen

"My life has been the polar opposite of safe, but I am proud of it and so is my son, and that is good enough for me. I would do it all over again without changing the beat, although I have never reccomended it to others. That would be cruel and irresponsible and wrong, I think, and I am none of those things.
Whoops, that's it, folks. We are out of time. Sorry. Mahalo. " -Hunter S Thompson

Last published words of the first and only Gonzo Journalist. Eerily enough these were the words I read not two hours before learning of the death of Hunter S. Thompson. Last night in his Aspen compound, Thompson put an abrupt period on the most brutally crazed life and career in modern writing. According to his son Juan, Dr. Thompson fatally shot himself. Age 65.

If you're looking for cycling news, or comments life on the other side of the planet, you won't find it today. An influential person in my life died tonight, so this rant is all literary snarl and babble. I'll be back to my normal self later, but tonight it's story time.

I first picked up a copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas at the tender age of 16. This was about the time that I discovered Fight Club by Chuck Pahlaniuk (thanks mom) and these two books had a major impact. Immediately. At the time I was struggling with the idea that I wasn't good at anything. Too small for football. Not smart (or patient enough) for Math or Science. Music? No good. Painting? Worthless. Drawing? Just as pathetic. Writing? Well, I can't write like Stienbeck or Kingsolver (nor do I want to), and newspaper writing is dry and boring so looks like that's out as well. Right?

Enter Pahlaniuk and Thompson. What initially struck me about thier work was the subject matter. Any 16 year-old suburbian rat would get jacked about the up-front, no-bullshit, uncensored manner that these guys talked about drugs, violence and sex, those taboo of taboo subjects to a pubescent lad. "This stuff is better than an R rated movie! It's so graphic!" Then, halfway through Fear and Loathing I suddenly Got It. The drugs and violence might have got me interested, but what kept it mind-blowing was the style these guys had. The way they wrote, not just what they wrote about. They didn't need "outlines" or "acts" or "proper structures." They wrote like they thought, at a million miles an hour. You had to keep up or get f&#ed, these guys weren't teaching to the bottom of the class and I loved it. I started to really enjoy writing for English assignments, purely to see how far I could push myself. I found my voice, and I spent the rest of High School seeing how hard I could write without getting failed, and it payed off. By the end of Sophomore year I could ace every single essay without fail and practically without thought. By my Junior year creative assignments and short stories became these sprawling creatures jammed out in a couple of hours the morning of the due dates, pure train of thought. Final drafts were edited down to a manageable 13 pages or so. I spent all class periods writing in cheap $1 notebooks, filling volume after volume with whatever and ever, amen. This did little for my grades, but wonders for my head.

I went on to read The Rum Diary, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail and (more recently) Kingdom of Fear. I re-read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas several times, and polished off Pahlaniuk's entire collection, moving on to Keroac, Leary and on and on. This isn't to say these were the only things I read. I would regularly be going through 3 books at a time (thanks ADD), usually instead of homework. You can have your Friends reruns and your Survivor. I'll hang out with Christopher Moore, Tim Robbins, Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers and Dr. Gonzo himself. So when it came time for my high-school counselor to ask me what I wanted to major in (assuming I made it into a University), I barely hesitated before saying "journalism." Like I'd do anything else. I passed my math classes by a thread (and by cheating). Science wasn't much better. I wasn't motivated enough to sell stuff I didn't care about, so business was out. I like writing, it's my thing, and I can largely thank HST for that.

Say what you want about his books glorifying reckless behavior, drug culture and general lawlessness. You're mostly right. To me, however, he wasn't babbling on about drugs (well, not entirely anyway), he was trying to extend what Keroac and the beat poets were hinting at. He was trying to find that free, open lifestyle of "life as it comes to you." Enjoying the moment. He was living the most he possibly could, and he didn't like the idea of being held back by authority figures and social rules. Scratch that. He loved rules, he just loved to break them, that's how he felt alive. Kept jumping out from around corners yelling "DOES THIS FREAK YOU OUT?!?" Kept telling The Man to shove it and kept going with his own flow. I certainly wouldn't choose his path, but for this basic philosophy I can at least respect him.

Hunter S Thompson didn't single-handedly change journalism (like he might claim), but he certainly did influence many a writer. I enjoyed his stuff. Still do. If I become "a writer" I'll be able to list him near the top of my influences. And that's really the point. His articles in Rolling Stone (which I ended up reading from archives 20 years after they were published) and Fear and Loathing on The Campaign Trail turned me on to journalism as Art, not just Formula.

I can't say that I'm surprised that he's dead. It's like your ancient great-great aunt finally passing away: you know it had to happen sooner or later, it's just the finality of the thing that's heavy. It's more of a surprise that his drug-addled body lasted as long as it did. Who knows how long he would have gone if he hadn't pulled the plug himself? That's something that was always consistent in his books, that question, "how long can we go like this, how long can we maintain?" Now you know. No matter how strong the body is, if the brain can't hold out, the whole thing goes down the crapper. Simple as that.

"If the greatest mania of all is passion: and if I am a natural slave to passion: and if the balance between my brain and my soul and my body is as wild and delicate as the skin of a Ming vase-
Well, that explains a lot of things, doesn't it?" -HST from Kingdom of Fear

Ok, I feel much better now. Cheers, Hunter. Your legacy's safe with us. Mahalo. DT

1 comment:

piglet said...

It was good to grieve with you...I was going to add a word or two, but ended up posting on fearthetelephone instead...