Mon, Feb 28, 2005 - Page 16 News List

The realMcCoy

Travel and fiction writer Paul Theroux recalls high times with Hunter S. Thompson, the writer and self-described outlaw who died last week

By Paul Theroux  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

The suicide of a satirist such as Hunter S. Thompson is particularly disturbing: You remember the things he wrote, the threats, the promises, or just the extravagance of his titles and subtitles -- The Kingdom of Fear, Confessions of a Political Junkie, Trapped like a Rat in Mr Bill's Neighborhood, Death of a Poet, Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century, A Savage Journey, A Strange and Terrible Saga -- and you think, "He wasn't kidding."

Hunter made something of a fetish of seeming to use words idly, as the bombast of comic effect, particularly his repetition of "fear and loathing." But the fear and loathing was real to him. He tended not to pull his punches, nor to deal in ambiguities. "You are a trigger-happy little bastard," he wrote to me affectionately. And also, "The pig has gone into the tunnel. But so what? We are champions." He knew how to buck one up.

As for the rest of humanity, politicians in particular -- for whom he had lots of time as a fascinated journalist but no sympathy -- his usual cries were: "Swine! Pig! Weasel! Crook! Fascist! Nazi! Diseased cur!"

He was a living reminder that satire at its best is a savage business. He was unsparing, self-punishing in the way he lived his life. His friends adored him. Such a brooding presence could not be the life of the party but he was always its soul.

He could also be an oblique and fearful man, less a drug addict than, as he sometimes called himself, a dope fiend. "The brutal reality of politics alone would probably be intolerable without drugs," he said. "Anybody who covers his beat for 20 years -- and my beat is `The Death of the American Dream' -- needs every goddamned crutch he can find." He also said, "It may be that every culture needs an Outlaw god of some kind, and maybe this time I'm it."

He was a boisterous recluse who also needed to be seen and heard. He was by nature a prowler, a social animal, inviting disapproval, provoking insults. He seldom dealt with books; he was no reader. Except for snippets from the Book of Revelation, which he knew almost by heart, his literary quotations have the odor of the anthology about them, or the simplicity of having been overheard or borrowed, not quarried from a dense text. You need to be able to sit still to be a reader.

There is a peculiar sort of irritable and sober and timid Mr Hyde who is always attempting with the use of drugs to transform himself into a bolder and happier Dr Jekyll; to transform himself for the purposes of art and science from a cranky destructor into a student of human behavior. It is the Stevenson story turned on its head. I saw this in Hunter. Released from his rages and his babbling, he acquired a much sunnier mood, and after the drugs had taken hold he was calmer, more rational, with a greater attention span; under the influence Hunter called himself "Doc."

He was always stuffing something into his mouth, and his chain-smoking wasn't even half of it. I wonder if I ever saw him sober? He wasn't an alcoholic, but he was certainly a drunkard; and though he could be compulsive, I don't think he was a drug addict -- not an obsessed and needy user of addictive drugs, at any rate, but what is generally known as a stoner and a sniffer. An addict is helpless, but drug-taking was for him a decision.

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