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

Not shy but strangely timid (he never traveled alone, he was innocent of the practical details of travel), Hunter at his most extroverted could be almost psychotic. He was deaf and distracted in the way serious drug takers become, even when they are sober, either shouting or whispering. I have no idea how he managed to write a word, but he wrote a dozen memorable books. He hardly slept, and he kept the strangest hours. Any friend of Hunter's can recount the phone ringing at 3am and the low conspiratorial growl, "It's 'Unner!"

He loved Hawaii, where I live, for its fine weather and its air of tolerance and its remoteness. Here he is in the luxury suite of a beachside hotel in Hawaii, sitting amid a clutter of room-service food, drinking beer and smoking and bantering and watching a basketball game. He was all his life a passionate sports fan. (Until his death he had a weekly column on the ESPN Sports Network Web site.) He happened to be in Hawaii to cover the Honolulu Marathon, but at the same time was keeping up with the National Football League Playoffs and the front-runners in the NBA. He was barking at the TV and picking at his food.

Much of the time he could be unintelligible, and there were times when I had no idea what he was talking about. It wasn't just his Kentucky accent (he habitually called himself a hillbilly); it was hoarse drawls and throat clearings, all the things in his mouth, for he was now drinking whisky and the cigarette was gone, replaced by a doobie he was sucking.

"Want to get high?" he called to his fiance (soon to be his wife, and now his widow) Anita. Hunter took out a vial and tapped powder into his palm. Anita replied that they had a plane to catch around midnight and that she had to pack all their bags. She was not cross. She was being reasonable -- it was not possible to take hits of cocaine and also fold shirts and zip up duffels.

Within minutes, Hunter had become serene -- tranquilized is the perfect word. He was legless, of course, but more cheerful, more comprehensible, more relaxed and rational, more affectionate, more conscious of the ups and downs of the basketball game, not barking anymore. He was Doc again, talking about the results of the marathon and urging me to consider joining him as an associate professor in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Hawaii.

"We'll offer a course on writing," he said, "and not just writing, but life, travel, philosophy, books, journalism, the whole thing. Do it together, you and me up there in the lecture hall. Every goddamned student will want to take the course. It'll be great. We'll meet girls, we'll make money, check out the surf. I'm sick of the horrible winter and all the snow in Colorado. This is the place, man. We just have to think of a name for the course. Hey, I've already cleared it with the president."

He wasn't joking -- the president of the University of Hawaii was an old friend. Hunter knew everyone -- writers who saw him for the true satirist he was, actors who wanted to appear in films about him (two feature films had been made of his exploits, Bill Murray playing him in the first, Johnny Depp in the second), journalists looking for a profile (five substantial biographies of Hunter were published in his lifetime), artists who wanted to paint him, photographers who wanted him to pose -- and he would sometimes oblige, naked, drinking, shooting a .44 Magnum, sometimes all at once.

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