The King of Gonzo
On Feb. 20, 2005, Hunter S. Thompson put the barrel of a .45 revolver in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He had been suffering weeks of pain following a broken leg and hip replacement.
Born in Louisville, Ky., in 1937, Thompson was one of the greatest writers to ever put meaningful words to paper. He was brutally honest, bitterly cynical and brilliantly accurate. He once described America as "a long plastic hallway where pimps and thieves run free and good men die like dogs. There is also a negative side."
Thompson studied journalism at Columbia University and began his writing career in the military as editor of the Eglin Air Force Base newspaper. In 1959 he became a Caribbean correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune and later spent two years in South America as a correspondent for the National Review.
Years later, as he was writing a story about the Kentucky Derby for Scanlan's magazine, he was up against a deadline he couldn't meet so he jerked pages out of his notebook, numbered them and faxed them to the publisher, convinced it would be the last story he would ever write. Instead, gonzo journalism was born.
Gonzo journalism is a highly subjective and personal form of reporting, characterized by exaggeration and sarcasm. Fact disguised as fiction. The stories are basically true but driven home by outrageous observations.
Thompson was a literary giant in a world gone mad. The day after President Kennedy was assassinated he wrote, "The savage nuts have shattered the great myth of American decency... I mean to come down from the hills and enter the fray." He went on to describe the "fear and loathing" that had engulfed him and vowed to henceforth vent his journalistic rage against the perpetual tide of injustice regardless of the consequences.
His contempt for politicians was legendary, characterizing them as "mainly dull people with corrupt instincts and criminal children." He called Richard Nixon "a swine of a man," Sen. Hubert Humphrey "a shallow, contemptible and hopelessly dishonest old hack" and Sen. Ed Muskie "a vicious 200-pound water rat." He dubbed Bill Clinton "a white-trash hillbilly" and referred to George Bush as "a treacherous little freak."
Thompson left no suicide note. His life's work speaks for itself. He was disgusted with the world and the direction it was headed. Just as his hero, Ernest Hemingway, had done decades earlier, he ended his trip with a self-inflicted projectile from a firearm and went off to the great beyond on his own terms.
In his book Generation of Swine, Thompson described heaven as "a place where the swine will be sorted out at the gate and sent off like rats, with huge welts and lumps and puncture wounds all over their bodies -- down the long black chute where ugliness rolls over you every 10 or 16 minutes like waves of boiling asphalt and poison scum, followed by sergeants and lawyers and crooked cops waving rule books; and where nobody laughs and everybody lies and the days drag on like dead animals and the nights are full of whores and junkies clawing at your windows and tax men jamming writs under your door and the screams of the doomed coming up through the air shaft along with white cockroaches and red stringworms full of AIDS and bursts of foul gas with no sunrise and ..." And so on and so on. It takes a special sense of genius to describe heaven in such glowing terms.
From Thompson's perspective, reality was a daunting existence of inequity and horror. "I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me," he once said in an interview.
He was the king of gonzo journalism. His beat was the death of the American dream and he was clearly in deep torment about the subject. For him, the American dream had faded so far beyond the horizon that drugs and alcohol could no longer blot it out, and there wasn't enough insanity left in him to overcome the anguish.
He lingers at the gates of heaven, waiting to be sorted out from the swine. His work here is done.