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eXile Classic / February 18, 2012

This article was first published in The eXile in February 2005.

You wouldn’t have guessed he’d shoot himself, but it made sense after the fact. He always meant what he said and did, and he always had the guns around. It was right that he used one to blow his brains out.

I can’t remember the last time a celebrity death made me sad like this. I’d been meaning to write a tribute to him, because I consider him a great and underrated writer. Too late now.

Still, it was an honorable and gory end, a good conclusion. He’d already lasted about 40 years longer than he expected to, and much, much longer than the mainstream wanted him to. Ever since he got famous and kept saying openly that he loved and used speed, they’d been waiting eagerly to see him turn into something they could use to scare the kids back to nice, dumb, cell-toxic booze. They were willing to tolerate a discreet stoner—marijuana users are pitifully harmless people—but not a smart, tough, 6’3″ redneck who sang the praises of the hard stuff. (In fact, one of my favorite comments he made about drugs was that he could write effectively on every drug EXCEPT marijuana.)

It irked them, the way he refused to die, go dramatically insane, become crippled, or recant. Way back in the 70s people were saying, “Oh, he’s through, he’s really fried his brain.” That was all you ever heard from the millions of cowards who were going through the recommended transition from druggie to real-estate agent: “Oh, Hunter’s lost it, I heard he OD’d…”

Well, he hadn’t lost it. He kept writing well—better than they could. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the best post-1945 American novel I know, with Dog of the South and Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch its only real competition. Thompson, waxing boastful in his old age, claimed it was as good as Great Gatsby; I say he was being absurdly modest. It’s vastly better than that rusting hulk welded of Preppie bathos.

There’s Huckleberry Finn, and then there’s FALILV. And note that they’re very similar books, these two great American novels: both hilarious, both steeped in intimate scorn for the culture they deride, both written by tough Southern boys who were too smart, honorable and cocky to fall for the Southern mythos—or the Northern one.

Thompson took all that was good about the South: personal honor, toughness, gun love, jokes; and abandoned, once and for all, the vile baggage that went with it, without whining about his loss. He backed Ron Dellums for VP in 1972, and never even thought about going back to Dixieland schmaltz when it became fashionable again at the turn of the millennium.

Can anybody else’s culture hero say as much? Can Orwell, that oft-cited example of journalistic virtue? Thompson was not only a far better writer than Orwell, he was a far better man. Orwell felt that his conversion to Socialism made it acceptable to him to keep all the other nasty bigotries of his background, and made a point of hating everyone his nanny had taught him to hate, from the Irish to the wogs to women.

Thompson dropped all his childhood prejudices and fought—in many cases, literally, physically fought—racism wherever he came across it. And typically, he never bemoaned his loss of innocence, nor became a mealymouthed “progressive”—an extraordinary bit of navigation through four decades of treacherous ideological snags, a feat worthy of his sole peer, the river pilot Mark Twain.

How many of the abstemious wisps who live on Spirulina and consider coffee a dangerous stimulant wrote as well in their sixties as he did? His columns for the San Francisco Examiner in the 80s were damn good, and his books kept coming, more diffuse but still funny. And he kept refusing to lie.

In one of his last books, Kingdom of Fear, he said the only druggies still honest enough to credit their chemical muses were him and Burroughs. But as with Gatsby, he was too generous. Truth is, he was the only one. Burroughs loved to pose with guns and play up the junkie schtick, but ended up sniveling to be “cured” of his “addiction” and wrote in praise of the medical gurus who weaned him off opiates.

Not Thompson. He never recanted.

We make the Hollywood Commies of the fifties into heroes for refusing to grovel or snitch, but that’s only because Commies just don’t matter. Try to think of a hero who stood up to the drug-cops and the medieval insanity they unleashed—a hero who never denied using drugs or enjoying them, never denied that they helped him enormously in his work, never backed down, even at the peak of the witch hunt. It’s a list of one: Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. That’s practical bravery, bravery in the face of real, virulent, popular oppression. Do you see the difference?

67 years old, and he was still going so strong it took a bullet in the head to stop him. A half-century on speed. It’s an awesome achievement in itself, never mind the writing.

Yes, speed. I’ll say it again, since this crucial word seems to have been left out of every obituary I’ve read: speed.

All the ex-druggies who run the California press, eager to airbrush the decades spent high on speed and coke from their official biographies, are squirming to find some way to avoid the word. The San Francisco Chronicle even managed to find someone who quoted Thompson as saying, “Adrenaline is our real drug of choice.”

Nice try. But let’s try to be a little bit honest, guys, just for a few minutes, in his honor. His drug of choice was speed. Crystal meth. Amphetamines. You all know it. You’ve all taken it. And not one of you will admit that you love it, that you’ve written on it, that you’ve had the best times of your life on it.

That was his gimmick: telling the truth. It’s something that would never occur to the people who run the San Francisco Chronicle. That’s all Thompson’s “new journalism” was: telling the truth about what it was like to be a reporter.

Every other American journalist saved his really juicy stuff for the boys in the bus, and fobbed off press releases and other garbage on the sucker readers. They do it instinctively; it literally would not occur to them to go about the job any other way. America is the perfect Soviet society, with a built-in disconnect between what a reporter knows and jokes about while drinking and drugging with other insiders, and what he tells the losers out there.

Thompson was simply brave enough to do the obvious (which was so “obvious” no one else dreamed of doing it): telling us the whole juicy experience of being on the press bus, being one of the insiders.

This is what columnists mean when they say that he became a “Gonzo” journalist and “abandoned objectivity”: simply that he told the druggy, boozy, rumor-fuelled truth they all preferred to save for each other. And in doing so, he actually made the filthy, dull slaughterhouse work of American politics seem worth reading about.

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972 is still worth reading, long after all its principal characters are dead. Not for its account of the election, but just to savor the Amphetamine rhythm of Thompson’s life on the road, in the bus: the highs, the hotel paranoia moments, the crashes—he tells a speed crash better than anyone except maybe Philip K. Dick.

And there, maybe, is a fit companion for him: Dick. Both were smart and lucky enough to be in the Bay Area just as it took flame, in the mid-60s. Both were a little bit older than the average callow hippie, and that saved them. I recently read Thompson’s early letters, collected in The Proud Highway, and was amazed to see how brilliantly he avoided all the pitfalls of the hippie trail. And God, there were a lot of pitfalls. There was the gullible folly of becoming a naive believer in the charismatic dictators of the moment. Thompson stayed a hard Leftist all his life, but mocked, in his letters, friends who swooned at the feet of third-world dictators.

Then there was the lotus-eater slide into drooling hedonism. He was astonishingly deft at avoiding that one, taking his share of sex and stoner idylls without ever losing his hardscrabble drive to keep writing. In fact, you’ll find him remarkably terse about sex, compared to any other hippie-era writer. He had more, and boasted less, than any one I can think of.

And most treacherous of all was the shallow, unconcealed pit labeled “Return to Airbrushed Safe Career.” He never took that one. It’s almost as if…could this be possible?…it’s almost as if he WASN’T SCARED. How could there be an American who wasn’t scared? Scared is all that we are, it’s our DNA. But not his.

One of his last columns described the long sequence of humiliating searches and interrogations he endured before boarding a flight to Hawaii. In a beautiful passage, he remembers fondly how Americans used to be able to go anywhere they wanted, without fear, without explaining themselves to anyone. I don’t know if that’s really true, but it’s wonderful to imagine. Just the idea of an American not being scared—that’s wonderful in itself.

But I fear he was the last one.

This article was first published in The eXile in February 2005.


Buy John Dolan’s novel “Pleasant Hell” (Capricorn Press).

Buy John Dolan’s novel “Pleasant Hell” (Capricorn Press).

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Add your own

  • 1. Bob  |  February 22nd, 2012 at 2:30 pm

    Hicks died of pancreatic cancer.

  • 2. JIMGOADSBRAINTUMOR  |  February 22nd, 2012 at 4:45 pm




  • 3. MCFAULSSENSEOFHUMOR  |  February 22nd, 2012 at 4:47 pm


  • 4. Mr. Bad  |  February 22nd, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    @50. Ilona

    Not working hard, but neither are you apparently, right? Just a little funtime with asberger diva Dolona and his Dostoyevsky by way of google translate “irony”. Don’t judge Dolona too harshly, it counts as good fun when
    you have to tickle trout for dinner and have a camp stove heating his tugboat to make out in, amiright?

  • 5. Ilona  |  February 23rd, 2012 at 12:00 am

    Ha, ha… Nice. Ok. Right.

  • 6. H.S. Thompson  |  February 23rd, 2012 at 12:41 am

    When I was alive(?), they called me a stoner. Now that I’m like totally dead . . . .

  • 7. Ilona  |  February 23rd, 2012 at 6:41 am

    @ 54. Mr. Bad

    Damn! You’d do your own footwork.

    Ok, I Google translated “irony”. According to Google it’s “ironia”.

    Once again we are getting somewhere!

  • 8. 69 Anytime 88 On a Date  |  February 23rd, 2012 at 9:41 am

    All this fuss over Johnny Depp? Jeez…

  • 9. MQ  |  February 24th, 2012 at 3:31 pm

    I love pot, but I also understand Dolan’s angst. His drug of choice, speed, does not have the wide acceptance enjoyed by pot and alcohol.

    In its Adderall form it enjoys very wide acceptance.

  • 10. SVETA THE FJCKEN SLUT  |  February 25th, 2012 at 5:04 am


  • 11. DeeboCools  |  February 25th, 2012 at 9:38 am

    “I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too.”- Mitch Hedburg

  • 12. Neil Baker  |  February 28th, 2012 at 9:56 am

    He didn’t shoot himself, dumbass!
    Neither did Gary Webb (in the head, twice.)
    Neither did J.H. Hatfield.
    Neither did Margie Schoedinger.
    Neither did JFK Jr. stall his airplane.
    Sen. Paul Wellstone was assassinated.
    All of them were exectuted.
    I strongly suspect that ExiledOnline is a Zionist counter propaganda pub.
    Shape up fa! ghhhhhh!—And that’s the last anyone heard from dear old Neil.

  • 13. Margo Adler  |  February 28th, 2012 at 10:44 am

    Totally late for the party and nobody asked for my opinion anyway, but:

    The way that HST blew his head off while ON THE TELEPHONE with his wife was a completely abusive, unacceptable thing to do. NOT OKAY.

    IMO, the quality of HST’s writing varied tremendously–but so did Twain’s, and practically every other author, especially the prolific ones. And HST was prolific. He was absolutely talented, and when he nailed it, he nailed it–his writing about Nixon? Clinton? Hell’s Angel’s? Some of his lines are unforgettable.

    I am morally indifferent to his drug use (unless it negatively affected his parenting–that’s not right), but having read most of his work, there is no doubt in my mind that years of speed and hard drinking gradually diminished his talent. Not judging, just saying.

    P.S. I am always confused when pot enthusiasts hate on Dolan because Dolan expresses his dislike of pot. Who cares if he hates pot? Why be so defensive? He’s entitled to dislike it. I never cared for it myself, but I don’t give a shit if anyone else uses it, and I’ll happily agree that it is infinitely less harmful than booze. Makes chemo patients hungry. Great. Just don’t tell me that it’s a cancer-curing wonder substance which enhances your IQ, or whatever. Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining.

  • 14. Neil Baker  |  February 28th, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    U.S. Army Colonel Ted Westhusing didn’t shoot himself either.
    Oops, looks like dem Zio boys done shot me already. Dang!

  • 15. hahaha  |  March 13th, 2012 at 9:38 pm

    Anyone ever find that Hawaii interrogation column?????? I’ve been looking for years.

  • 16. Glenn MacLeod  |  May 15th, 2012 at 7:04 pm

    What about Charles Bukowski???? If anybody chronicled the down and dirty decadence of the downtrodden American, it was him, and he had plenty of poetic moments to boot where he could somehow make the ugly side of L.A. life beautiful in its wretchedness. Then there’s Brett Easton Ellis. You can’t say he shied away from writing about the glories of the drug life even if he did prefer the company of the wealthy, the gorgeous, and the totally ammoral. There’s a reason why the Hell’s Angels think Thompson is a big wimp. He had his moments of brillaince, but he didn’t go down swinging like Buk—THAT FEIRCE POSTAL WORKER 4 LIFE REBEL—did and I think Ellis has at least one more good relapse in him (and hopefully a sequel to American Psycho). Just publishing that made him one of the ballsiest American writers ever. Maybe when the slug scattered his brains he hoped people would kindly equate him with Hemingway. Not a fucking chance. And how about…me! Yeah that’s right, you punk ass misers. See how I write like a total MAN. All tight and gritty–punchy and meaner than a postal office groupie on day three of a seven day rot gut bender. Yeah! I’m a badass, taking it to the mean places HST never had the guts to! Yeah!

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