Beyond Gonzo

For all the outrageous journalism that made him famous, Hunter S. Thompson's legacy is his search for greater truths.


February 22, 2005|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

Love him or hate him, fear him or loathe him, Hunter S. Thompson left an indelible mark on American literature, one that, as much as some critics think it needs a good scrubbing, will likely persist -- as rebellious and brazen as the writer himself.

Thompson, who was found dead at age 67 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in rural Colorado on Sunday, was one of the earliest and best-known practitioners of New Journalism, or, as he preferred to call it, "Gonzo Journalism."

He was known for putting himself into the stories he covered, dropping any pretense of objectivity, and for seeking a truth that ran deeper than any mere set of facts.

Whether it was riding with the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang, as he did in the 1960s, or going decadently astray while on assignment, a tale he recounted in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson served as participant, observer, central character and the wordsmith who wove it all together -- opinion, invective and any drug-induced hallucinations that occurred along the way included.

In doing so, he became a counterculture hero, an idol to free spirits everywhere and an enigma to journalists who, even while questioning his veracity, envied his free rein.

"He became kind of like Hemingway in the way that his fame begat more fame," said friend and Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Kennedy. "He had a kind of rock-star fame writers don't usually have."

Kennedy, who said he spoke to Thompson two weeks ago, said the writer's suicide was surprising in some ways, but not in others.

"It doesn't surprise me that he did it, though I was surprised he did it now. But it suits his style, he was very into guns, and he had talked to me once about how he was following the Hemingway arc," Kennedy said, referring to that writer's suicide.

Thompson -- a collector of guns and member of the National Rifle Association -- apparently shot himself in the head with a .45-caliber handgun at his compound in Woody Creek, outside Aspen.

An eccentric sort, Thompson listed his political affiliation as "anarchist." In 1970, he ran for sheriff in Aspen as a member of the "Freak Power Party." In 2000, he slightly wounded his assistant while trying to shoot a bear on his property. He liked to practice shooting at targets, which, Kennedy said, included some bearing the likeness of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

Kennedy met Thompson in 1959, after rejecting his application for a job.

Thompson had answered an ad for a sports editor at the San Juan Star in Puerto Rico. In the letter he sent Kennedy, who was managing editor, Thompson lamented the state of American journalism and came across as arrogant and volatile, Kennedy said.

The two traded letters, and "a few months later, [Thompson] turned up for a drink," Kennedy said. "I never hired him, but we got to be friends."

Thompson went on to work at a bowling magazine, then as a freelancer, writing "vivid, probably half-fictional pieces," Kennedy said.

"I think he is a terrific writer, but his journalism is really fiction. He's a first-rate writer with a place somewhere, but it's hard to say where that place would be, because it involves the fusion of two forms," said Kennedy, executive director of the Writers Institute at the State University of New York and author of the Pulitzer-winning novel Ironweed.

"He wasn't trying to mask anything," he added. "Anybody with any intelligence could read it and know it was made up. ... What he did was in the service of a greater truth, and he really did something that nobody else had done."

Kennedy last saw Thompson a year and a half ago. "He was pretty down because of back pain. He didn't even want to talk about it. He was taking a lot of stuff to keep the pain down."

Thompson had broken his leg in Hawaii a few years ago and gotten a hip replacement, said Kennedy. Despite problems after the surgery, Thompson remained a hard-living, hard-drinking practical joker, still showing up at book signings under the influence, still doing and saying outrageous things.

"He was a very funny guy and very crazy. He was genuinely crazy," Kennedy said. "He didn't exaggerate about his life, he lived an exaggerated life."

Born in Louisville, Ky., the son of an insurance agent, Thompson got into trouble with the law as a youth for drinking and vandalism, once spending 60 days in jail.

He enlisted in the Air Force in 1956, and served as a sportswriter for an airbase newspaper. He received an honorable discharge in 1957.

He spent the next five years in Puerto Rico and South America, working for several newspapers.

While his longest magazine stint was at Rolling Stone, Thompson was also a correspondent for the drug-culture magazine High Times and a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner. Most recently, he had been writing a column for the sports Web site

His books include Hell's Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, The Great Shark Hunt, The Curse of Lono and Generation of Swine.

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