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

After he arrived back in Colorado from that night of transformation in Hawaii, he told me he had made an important travel discovery at the airport.

"If you're really stoned -- really mellow, really coked up," he said, "they put you in a wheelchair and you're the first passenger to board! It was a great flight. Went by in a flash."

I have not seen his like in Europe; but he was a familiar American type, not much louder but a lot more imaginative, a country boy ("I was a juvenile delinquent"), who had served in the US Air Force for two years, traveled to South America, worked on small-town newspapers in such places as Middletown, New York. He made his name 40 years ago by chronicling the notorious motorcycle gang, the Hell's Angels, and writing an excellent book about the motorcycle culture.

He was always looking for the newest excitement. The dignified and appreciative prose style (even when describing gang rape and mayhem) of his Hell's Angels does not much resemble the controlled hysteria and satirical abuse of his later books. He quickly realized true objectivity was not possible and that he was at least important as whatever he was writing about. To this personal intrusion that is the heart of his writing he gave the name gonzo journalism.

Already obituarists are speaking of his demons. But his demons are familiar, because they are our demons, most of ours anyway: fatuous politicians who see war as an answer, the junking of toxic waste, an increasingly more poisoned planet, the selling mechanism, weasels in government, posturing celebrities, brainless academics, fat lazy children, liars in power.

Hunter said that President Nixon represented "that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character." He went on attacking the president. On Nixon's death he spat on his grave. It is one of my favorite Thompson pieces (reprinted in his collection Better than Sex). As the funeral orations were being delivered and everyone was praising Nixon, Thompson wrote in "He Was a Crook," published in Rolling Stone (1994), one of the best, the funniest, the most sustained polemics I have ever read.

Midway through it, in a burst of candor, Hunter reflects on his harsh words and says, "but I have written worse things about Nixon many times, and the record will show that I kicked him repeatedly long before he went down. I beat him like a mad dog with mange every time I got a chance, and I am proud of it."

The epigraph to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is Dr Johnson's statement: "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man." It would not be a bad epitaph. He liked getting liquored up and doing battle -- his memos to various magazines reek of alcohol but are readable for their truth and their boozy wit. He called himself "a political junkie."

Well before the Iraq war, Thompson wrote: "We have become a Nazi monster in the eyes of the whole world -- a nation of bullies and bastards who would rather kill than live peacefully. We are not just whores for power and oil, but killer whores with hate and fear in our hearts. We are human scum, and that is how history will judge us .... George W. Bush does not speak for me or my son or my mother or my friends or the people I respect in this world."

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