Weird -- and wired

Monday Book Reviews

January 17, 1994|By John F. Kelly

WHEN THE GOING GETS WEIRD: THE TWISTED LIFE AN TIMES OF HUNTER S. THOMPSON. By Peter Whitmer. Hyperion. 335 pages. $21.95.

DO WE really need another "very unauthorized biography" of outlaw journalist Hunter S. Thompson? There's been a spate of them recently -- this is the second in 1993, the other being Paul Perry's "Fear and Loathing" -- and the question is, why? Are the authors chronicling an era using one of its pivotal stars?

Or defining a writer's influence on the journalism of the last three decades?

Or are they simply reflecting a longing for the good old anti-establishment days of the '60s when Hunter Thompson's unique brand of "gonzo" journalism, "a balls-to-the-wall, accelerator-to-the-floor style of life," skewered everything in its path?

Whatever, Hunter Thompson's a phenomenon worthy of biography, and "When the Going Gets Weird" is probably the best so far, though it, like the others, suffers from its subject's lack of cooperation. Regardless, Mr. Whitmer, a clinical psychologist whose previous book, "Aquarius Revisited," profiled seven members of the American counterculture, including Mr. Thompson, seems to have spoken to most of the major players in Mr. Thompson's bizarre, drug-soaked life, from rebellious schoolboy chums in Louisville, Ky., to the leading lights of the acid generation (and beyond).

The result is a fair, well-balanced account that takes its title from Mr. Thompson's famous slogan, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro," first expressed in a column he wrote as a 19-year-old sportswriter for an Air Force weekly. Mr. Thompson had joined the Air Force as a condition of parole from a Louisville jail on a trumped-up robbery charge. Discharged on a technicality, he drifted to New York and then to South America, where he freelanced for several papers and married his long-time girlfriend.

Back in the States, he moved to California, worked briefly at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur (before being fired for terrorizing guests with his vicious Dobermans and randomly shooting off guns), and eventually settled in Aspen, Colo., with his wife and son, Juan. His exploits in Aspen, at first amusing, become increasingly disturbing.

What sets Hunter Thompson apart from the rest of humanity (aside from his trademark mirrored sunglasses, Hawaiian shirts and cigarette holder) is a total disregard for convention in his personal and professional lives (which, in truth, are largely inseparable). He is the story -- and the story is he. And drugs and alcohol play major roles. "I wouldn't recommend [them] to anyone," he once said. "But they have always worked for me." His appetite for both (usually at the same time) is legendary.

Articles went unwritten, books unfinished, engagements unmet while Mr. Thompson indulged. (One of his boozy appearances was at Johns Hopkins University some years ago.) The classic story, of course, is the time he was holed up in a New York hotel room, drunk and stoned, writing a piece on the Kentucky Derby for Scanlon's magazine. The words wouldn't come, and frantic editors, facing deadline, kept sending copy boys to the author's room. Finally, out of futility, he gave them handwritten notes from his note pad. An hour later, they were back for more.

A star was born.

That is not meant to denigrate Mr. Thompson's genius. No one who has read his books, from "Hell's Angels" to "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" (which the New York Times called "the best book on the dope decade"), or his articles in Rolling Stone and other national magazines can deny him his place among the most creative (and funny) writers of this or any other era. It's meant to show, instead, that he has a human side. Unfortunately, in exposing it, Mr. Whitmer reveals a darker, uglier side of Hunter Thompson. He is not Uncle Duke, the cute, funny cartoon character in Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury." Mr. Whitmer paints him as a cowardly bully who can be unbelievably cruel.

Mr. Thompson once commanded one of his dogs to "get" folk singer Joan Baez's kitten. In an instant, the dog broke the kitten's neck. "He did not apologize," Mr. Whitmer says. "His impassive, mask-like face showed no emotion at all." It was like him, a friend commented, "to push people's buttons just to see what would happen." In Aspen, says another source, Mr. Thompson used to fire his guns over the head of Juan while the latter was playing in the yard. "Not right at him . . . But close $$ enough and loud enough that the child went rigid with fear."

There are indications the chickens may be coming home to roost. Mr. Thompson's wife, Sandy, left him a few years ago. He hTC has quarreled with Rolling Stone publisher and editor, Jann Wenner. His homophobia estranged him from his brother, Jim, and his other brother, Davison, avoids him. From all reports, his health is deteriorating. Mr. Whitmer says he has taken to wearing his shirts out to cover his distended liver. His public appearances are episodic, frightening booking agents away, and his last couple of books have been critical flops.

Some view it as simple justice. For those who recognize his talent and applaud his efforts to expose society's dark side, however, Hunter Thompson's decline is nothing less than tragic.

"It puzzles me," says Alan Rinzler, midwife to much of the author's work, "why anyone so talented, so famous, would want to kill themselves."

John F. Kelly is a Baltimore writer.

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