Hunter Thompson: literature or white noise?
There are dozens of people in Aspen and around the world who had extensive personal experience with Hunter S. Thompson, but I am not one of them. My experience with the man was limited to reading a couple of his books and watching him speak once in 1983 at the University of Colorado.As the copy editor of the University of Colorado yearbook, the Coloradan, I was obliged to cover the university speaker series, which included such literary giants as Kurt Vonnegut, who arrived on time, sober and with a message.Hunter Thompson was a different story. He arrived onstage two hours late, which irked me to the core. If you’ve ever spent two unnecessary hours with a couple thousand expectant souls in a muggy auditorium, you’d share my pain. He was already noticeably drunk as he reached the lectern. Once Thompson deigned to speak, he slobbered through a couple of hours of incoherent ramblings while swilling a six-pack of Heineken.After suffering through that 1983 speech at CU, I became a passive observer of Hunter S. Thompson and learned that his behavior that night was altogether typical. Personally, I have better things to do than sit for two hours in a sweltering room waiting for a drunk to start ranting. Yet others who were there reveled in it, describing to me that they had enjoyed the evening, that the waiting had somehow intensified their experience, that his observations were right on, and his was a model lifestyle. Everywhere he appeared, it seemed that he had legions of followers who fawned at his every caustic observation.Like him or not, Hunter S. Thompson had a defining effect on not only literature (if you can call it that) and journalism, but on American popular culture. By placing himself as one of the central characters in his stories, Hunter Thompson paved the way for the self-promotion and bombast that permeate every facet of American culture today – from reality shows starring Ozzy Osbourne to Jose Canseco and his praise of steroid abuse, to the “Crocodile Hunter,” to beleaguered University of Colorado ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill.Thompson’s style was one of endless hyperbole and bombast, of beating the reader over the head with heavily charged descriptions that left no room for debate, while shamelessly glorying in his famous excesses, and yes, felonious behavior. Phrases of darkness and blood-soaked images of swine, Nazis, rats, demons and evil permeated his writings. Most of these rants were directed at the “establishment,” meaning mainly anything that represented the Republican Party, but also crossed over to the famously lenient Pitkin County law enforcement. For years, various Aspen and Pitkin County cops tolerated his drug abuse, alcoholism, and penchant for blasting firearms at anything and everything, including discharging a 12-gauge shotgun on the Aspen Golf Course and grazing his personal assistant with a bullet. But they once busted him for drunken driving, whereupon they became the targets of his vitriol. A well-deserved drunken driving arrest suddenly became a persecution of a famous writer by the establishment.In other words, Hunter Thompson wanted free rein to do as he damn well pleased, and vilified anyone or anything that stood in his way, whether his behavior was legal or not.How tedious.I found his writing to be entertaining and his political observations provocative, but his style became far too widely imitated. In an age of endless complexities – a suffering environment, shrinking personal freedom, overwhelming technology, overconsumption of resources, and war and more war – open debate and compromise are vital parts of the decision-making process. Yet the Hunter S. Thompson method of attacking the world at large left no room for debate or compromise. It left the reader either in mindless agreement or walking away thinking, “What a lunatic.” As a cultural figure, Thompson reminds me of the Reverend Jim Jones and his following of Kool-Aid drinkers in Guyana.Does University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill have a valid point when he decries our corporate policies toward underdeveloped nations? Yes, he does. But when he calls victims of the 9/11 attacks “little Eichmanns,” in the style of Hunter S. Thompson, the American public doesn’t want to listen. They only want to send his commie ass packing so he never draws another public paycheck again, and God forbid that their children take one of his classes. Churchill is a poor imitator of Thompson’s style.However, in a most ironic twist, one of the purest masters of Thompson’s style is his archenemy, Karl Rove, the Republican Party strategist. The “Clearcut for Logging Company Contributors Act” becomes the “Healthy Forests Act.” The “We Hate Faggots Amendment” becomes the “Defense of Marriage Amendment.” In the 2004 presidential election, Rove doused every Democratic Party plank and every vote cast by John Kerry in a sea of hyperbole and bombast.Do you recall the words “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists”? The “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth”? Shades of Hunter S. Thompson: In or out. My way or the very famous highway.Ultimately, his was a voice of dissonance and pain, of tortured angst and personal demons.I’m sure that hundreds or even thousands of fans made their pilgrimages to his house in Woody Creek, distinguishable by the sculptures of vultures over the main gate, braving the possibility that a barrage of gunfire might break out at any moment, to speak with the oracle. I wonder, did any of them have an intelligent discourse with the man? Did they come away with any wisdom?The day that Hunter S. Thompson killed himself it was snowy and cold, blustery and dark in Woody Creek. White noise. The next morning, it was beautiful and sunny, with a frosting of brilliant snow on every twig and fence post and the red mountains of Lenado looming above. Had he woken up the next morning, would Hunter Thompson have known it was a beautiful day?Gary Hubbell lives in Marble, where he writes for magazines and photographs for stock agencies. He and his wife, Doris, own Clinetop Press, publishers of books on Labrador retrievers and fly-fishing, http://www.clinetop.com.
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