The Hunter S. Thompson You Don't Know
If you talk to people who knew Hunter S. Thompson, born 74 years ago this week, you are going to hear crazy stories. From Thompson’s birth, boyhood, and schooling in Louisville, Kentucky, to a brief stint with the Air Force, even briefer stints with several newspapers and magazines in the early 1960s, the 1966 publication of his first book, Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, until his death by a long-promised suicide in 2005, the author, journalist, and all-American antihero cut a broad swath through life, becoming as infamous for a love of drink, drugs, and guns, as he was famous for his literary career.
That’s a shame. Hunter’s antics as the woozy, half-mad, cosmic prankster in a golf hat, shooting glasses, and a gaudy print shirt too often can obscure a less-exciting, but perhaps more significant aspect of his character: Thompson as a writer at work.
Hunter indulged for all the typically human reasons, ranging from an authentic quest for new experience to simply bludgeoning demons into submission. Lord knows that drug-addled lunacy was essential Thompson’s life and art, just as it was to William Burroughs, Baudelaire, Byron, and Shelly.
Hunter was perhaps unique because drink-and-drug-fueled madness weren’t only his subject matter and milieu—they were his cause célèbre. As the most articulate, and most militant advocate of the better-living-through-chemistry ethos to arise in the counterculture movements 1960s, Thompson saw mind-altering chemicals, particularly high-powered hallucinogenics, as weapons in the culture wars. This was a man, after all, who ran for the Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, on a platform of Freak Power, using the campaign poster designed by Tom W. Benton depicting a fist with two thumbs clenching a button of peyote.
But Hunter did more than get blasted and do crazy stuff. That would make him no different from half of humanity. He also didn’t merely get blasted, do crazy stuff, and write a bit about it. That would make him Neal Cassady. Thompson wrote a lot, on a panoramic array of subjects, with dazzling technical proficiency, plus passion, wit, fury, sensitivity, reams of jaw-dropping sensory detail, and a fanatical devotion to the English language roughly akin to what Torquemada felt for the pope.