In new memoir, Juan Thompson recalls growing up Gonzo
If You Go …
What: ‘Stories I Tell Myself,’ book release party and reading by Juan Thompson
Where: Gonzo Gallery, 625 E. Hyman Ave.
When: Saturday, Jan. 16, 7 p.m.
How much: Free
Juan F. Thompson doesn’t burnish the legend of his renowned writer father in his new memoir. “Stories I Tell Myself: Growing Up with Hunter S. Thompson” instead offers an unsparing portrait of the domestic chaos of being the only child in the Thompson home in Woody Creek, his slow progress toward forming a father-son relationship and an unflattering look at the indignities Hunter suffered in old age.
Why? Juan said his father would have wanted it that way.
“It was important to me to tell the stories that were significant in our relationship,” Juan, who will discuss the book today at the Gonzo Gallery, said in a recent phone interview. “Those events — the fights were awful, and the days in the hospital were difficult. And I got clear that Hunter would not want me to present a whitewashed version of him.”
Juan spent nearly 10 years on the book. He wrote an initial draft in 2006, and worked on it in fits and starts in the ensuing years. The first chapter he wrote recounts Hunter’s funeral at Owl Farm, with a 153-foot cannon firing his ashes into the sky and a massive party celebrating his life.
That portion, and much of the back end of the book, focus on the “magic” and the heroic aspects of Hunter Thompson and offer a loving portrait. But until then, it digs into their tumultuous relationship and failed efforts to connect with one another on the road to reconciliation.
“I am proud of him, and to be his son,” he writes near the memoir’s end. “This was a long time coming.”
Early chapters offer a bracing picture of a childhood filled with fighting and “verbal death matches” between Hunter and his first wife, Sandy, with Juan caught in the middle.
“I hated him deeply and completely,” he writes of Hunter after state troopers mediate a fight. “If I could have called down a god’s wrath on him and destroyed him with a lightning bolt at that moment, I would have done it. He was more than frightening, he was deliberately and carefully cruel — he was evil — and I would have destroyed him if I could have, for my sake and my mother’s.”
Artist Tom Benton becomes something of a surrogate father, his home a source of stability for the young Thompson. Jimmy Buffett does, too. As his parents move through a rancorous divorce, Juan goes sailing with Buffett in the Caribbean.
Local readers will take an interest in the book’s portrait of a changing Aspen and Woody Creek. Early on, there are elegiac passages about Woody Creek in the 1960s and ’70s — its mix of ranchers and hippies. He writes of the experimental early days of the Aspen Community School and his transformative time as a student at Carbondale’s Colorado Rocky Mountain School. He recalls crawling under the tables in the Hotel Jerome’s bar as a child, picking up money that patrons have dropped and buying comic books next door at Carl’s with the loot. But he notes with some bitterness how Woody Creek, and Aspen before it, transform largely into a wealthy enclave.
“Every time I go back, there’s kind of a ghost image of the Aspen where I grew up,” he said in the interview. “And each time I go back it fades more. It’s become a place that I don’t want to spend time.”
Building fires and cleaning guns became the enduring father-son rituals for the pair, extending from Juan’s childhood until Hunter’s final days. In between, there are periods of estrangement and many failed attempts to get along.
Once Juan is in adulthood, a bond forms gradually and through some traditional rites of passage. Juan’s marriage and the birth of his son (who calls Hunter “Ace,” never grandpa) help bring them back together. Juan successfully shooting a gasoline bomb with a shotgun at Owl Farm to celebrate his engagement is a turning point.
A 1996 event honoring Hunter in his native Louisville, Kentucky, also proves pivotal to their reconciliation. It was the first time Juan spoke publicly about his father, and he writes of the trepidation he felt about doing so. Since his father’s death, Juan has grown more comfortable talking about him in public.
“Especially with the release of the book, I’m thinking, ‘Do I want a whole lot of strangers knowing this much about my life?’ It’s an odd thing. It feels like it’s detached from me. These are facts and history about my life, but it’s not me.”
Including some potentially embarrassing details about his father’s decreasing mobility and declining health, he said, was key to helping readers understand his father’s 2005 suicide, to which Juan devotes a full chapter in the book. There are harrowing sections about hospital stays for surgeries, complicated by Hunter’s heavy drinking, in Vail and Glenwood Springs.
“I think it was important for people to know that the alcohol was dissolving his body and breaking it down,” he said. “That was important. Not that I’m trying to get revenge, but because that was a factor, I believe, in his decision to take his life.”
Now 51, Juan is not a writer by trade – he’s a Denver-based IT professional. In the book he writes of his inherited love of reading, but also his lack of enthusiasm for the family business of journalism. A half-hearted attempt to write for a college newspaper, he writes, quickly fizzles when he realizes how boring it is to cover a student council meeting.
His interest in mind-altering substances also is out of step with his father’s. Juan writes of doing LSD through his early teens but quickly becoming a self-proclaimed “nerd,” more interested in computer hacking and studying literature than in drugs or drinking.
This is not a biography of the iconic Hunter Thompson — the wild man gonzo journalist with the Tilly hat and TarGuard on his cigarette, the timeless writer, the incisive cultural and political observer, the local rabble-rouser. It tells a more common story of fathers and sons.
“As I worked through the process, I realized this is not really a unique story,” he said. “It’s unusual because it’s about Hunter and he was an unusual man. But the basic story of a father and son trying to find some way to connect — and you throw in alcohol and drugs and family not being a top priority for Hunter — it’s a story that plays out in lots and lots of homes. They just don’t happen to have a famous father as one of the cast members.”
A woman who grew up in such a home came up to Juan and discussed her similar upbringing after one of his first book events this month at Denver’s Tattered Cover. He’s hopeful the book will reach readers beyond Gonzo Nation.
“That would be very gratifying, if this story was able to speak to the broader audience beyond Hunter fans,” he said.
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