A crashing end to Hunter S. Thompson's high-wire act

February 25, 2005|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Just as nearly every woman has a little Aretha Franklin in her, as I once heard someone say, I believe every journalist has a little bit of Hunter S. Thompson inside, raging to be heard.

Now he lives only within us, his readers. Mr. Thompson was found dead Sunday at age 67 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his "fortified compound" near Aspen, Colo.

He made journalism look like fun because he was so much fun to read - too much fun for us to ruin it by worrying about whether all of his facts were actually factual or whether the dark shadows of personal danger that lurked shark-like beneath the dazzling waves of his rants, revelations and screeds might someday drag him under.

"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro," Mr. Thompson once wrote. He was weird but he made it work. A lesser reporting talent who took Mr. Thompson's liberties with facts and invective would be fired and forgotten, but Dr. Gonzo was blessed with a gift for producing richly detailed, colorfully written, darkly amusing journeys into American subcultures that became instant classics.

But all envy now evaporates. His fabulous high-wire act has come crashing down before our eyes, despite the glimmers of hope he occasionally showed that he might take charge of his inner lunacies before they took charge of him.

Even in his 1971 drug-crazed classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he reaches some profoundly unflattering conclusions about the biggest scam of the 1960s, the notion that hallucinogenic drugs would fling open our doors of perception.

In a sober and prophetic sermon-rant in his book's final chapters, he writes: "We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fueled the '60s. That was the fatal flaw in [LSD guru] Tim Leary's trip. He crashed around America selling `consciousness expansion' without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him seriously. ... All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit. But their loss and failure is ours too. What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole lifestyle that he helped to create ... a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody ... or at least some force - is tending the light at the end of the tunnel."

Mr. Thompson's self-destruction tells us that maybe he should have taken that "desperate assumption" of a "force" at the end of the tunnel a bit more seriously. Belief in a higher power has saved countless other souls from the miserable hopelessness that feeds their own self-destruction. I wish it could have reached Hunter Thompson in time.

His death has the last word now. No matter how much joy we seem to be bringing to the party, Mr. Thompson's suicide tells us, we cannot simply mask our personal pain. We must dig deeper and find the faith to help us drive out that beast.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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