Volume III, Issue IV Winter 2004

So long, Hunter
Thompson broke the rules to get at the truth

Somewhere there's a photograph of me and Hunter S. Thompson taken at San Diego State around 1984 or '85 by Michael Emery. Thompson had come to speak on campus and I'd somehow worked up the nerve – undoubtedly fortified with alcohol and who knows what else – to get in line and ask the Great Writer a question.

Like many high school nerds, I only found my way once I got to college. And so in those heady days of seemingly eternal youth, I generally sported a straw hat, white lab cat and priestly collar as I rambled around campus. I couldn't tell you why to save my life now, but it seemed somehow right at the time.

So there I am, at the microphone dressed up like a a very confused fan at a M*A*S*H convention, a cross between Hawkeye and Fr. Mulcahy, challenging Thompson to explain why Walter Mondale was truly any better than Ronald Reagan – or even fundamentally different. The crowd booed, of course, which was probably my main motivation anyway. But Thompson was quite nice. Came off the stage and stood in front of me and said, well, he hadn't really voted for Mondale so much as against Reagan, and that was what was wrong with our country today, we were all reduced to voting against someone.

And there was my brush with fame.

Or at least first-person interaction with the best American writer since Hemingway blew his brains out a half-century ago.

The news that Thompson had followed Hemingway's example seems almost ... predictable. Given his hair- and hell-raising rep earned in such books as "Hell's Angels" and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," nobody really expected Thompson to die in a retirement home.

Still, 67 is fairly young by contemporary standards, and by all accounts Thompson was in fairly good health. He was still writing – had a new book out last summer, and a column on ESPN.com – and still had a following and a fan base.

More than that, even, he had what every writer craves – access. There was almost no story Thompson couldn't get credentials for, no public figure outside a few hardcore conservative types he couldn't get an interview with. He had juice, and he knew how to use it.

So there's a certain sadness that for whatever reason he felt he had to check out early.

His loss leaves us without a real top-flight American writer. Hell, Norman Mailer himself now admits that he and Gore Vidal never rose to the level of Faulkner or Hemingway. Their novels already seem dated and quaint – kind of like seeing Playboy mudflaps on a Ford Pinto. John Irving will never be as good as he thinks he is, and while John Updike is solid, he's never really achieved that level of greatness that Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" did.

You could argue that Thompson only had that one great book – but it's one great book coupled to a larger-than-life personality that infused the national landscape with character and charm. Much like his hero Hemingway, Thompson had that swagger that made him Important.

Also like Hemingway, Thompson influenced an entire generation of writers. My generation. And like the generation that adored Hemingway, none of us could ever really write like our hero. Thompson's was a singular voice, with a meter and rhythm all its own.

When it worked, as it did so well in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," Thompson's style was a literary force, a gale that washed over you and caught you up in its currents and tides.

When it didn't, though, it was something painful to behold.

Still, his last column for ESPN.com was up to his old standards – a hilarious, probably drunken, proposal to combine golf and skeet, complete with a 3 a.m. phone call to comedian Bill Murray.

More than his style, though, Thompson brought a devil-may-care iconoclasm to the craft of writing and reporting. He took on the hypocrisies of right and left with equal vehemence. If he hated Nixon and both Bushes, he didn't think much more of Humphrey or Clinton.

Thompson captured the spirit of the 1960s and '70s better than any other writer captured that time. Discarding academic loftiness and journalistic detachment, Thompson dove into the times he found himself in and wrote about them as best he could. His main objective was always Truth, and if his truth wasn't everyone else's, he never seemed less than honest in trying to find it.

In so doing, he created a body of work that stands alongside the best music of that period in capturing the social emotions of that time. Janis and the Airplane, Otis Redding and the Stones – Thompson's voice stands alongside theirs in capturing the idealism and despair that made the 1970s what they were.

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