My favorite story about Hunter S. Thompson (this one cribbed from
the 2007 Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour biography, Gonzo) takes place
when Thompson was writing for Rolling Stone and spurring many would-be
imitators to submit their own drug-addled stories to the magazine.
Thompson, with his usual sense of humor, donated his services to his
editors by writing a rejection letter for these submissions. "You
worthless, acid-sucking piece of illiterate shit!" it opened. "Don't
EVER send this kind of brain-damaged swill in here again!" The letter
continues to berate the submitter for another 500 words before "Yail
Bloor III, Minister of Belles-lettre" adds in a postscript, "P.S. Keep
up the good work. Have a nice day!"
As a writer, I couldn't imagine getting a funnier and more cherished
rejection letter, yet one would that would cause anger and aggravation.
It fits Thompson perfectly.
And thus I fulfill my duty, because every biographical sketch of
Thompson begins with a story. The aforementioned Gonzo is riddled with
stories from over a hundred different sources. Even Joe Klein's New
York Times review of Gonzo begins with a story (about how he and
Thompson partied in Ethel Kennedy's McLean, Va., home in 1974), as does
Douglas Brinkley's Rolling Stone obituary (Thompson had Brinkley's
college writing students shoot up their copies of his work with a .45
in the backyard of his Aspen home). And it's not surprising, either,
given that the writer was more than just the inventor of gonzo
journalism, a prolific columnist, a man of letters and the author of
three brilliant books capped off by the transformative drug and
and Loathing in Las Vegas. He was larger than life, a character, the
tall, thin, bald drug-and-alcohol-abusing madman ever bedecked with
aviator glasses and cigarette holder. He shot guns. He raved with
nervous, machine-gun ferocity. He fell into cataleptic silences. He was
a counter-culture hero who snorted coke with movie stars and
presidential aides in the White House. He was a rock-star writer.
But given all the media attention, the interviews, the
documentaries, two feature films (Where the Buffalo Roam and Fear and
Loathing in Las Vegas), his appearance as a character in a comic daily
(as Duke in "Doonesbury," which he loathed) and his own body of work,
it's still almost impossible to say where the self-created literary
character ended and the "real" man began. Who was Hunter S. Thompson,
That's a question Jay Cowan tackles in his biography, Hunter S.
Thompson: An Insider's View of Deranged, Depraved, Drugged Out
Cowan was part of Thompson's clique of friends during the last 30
years of his career when he lived on Owl Farm in Aspen, Colo. Cowan met
Thompson during the 1970 Aspen mayoral race when Cowan was the editor
of his high-school yearbook and a supporter, like Thompson, of that
race's liberal candidate. Thompson took the aspiring writer under his
wing and later Cowan became his caretaker and rented a house on his
property where he lived off-and-on in equal parts as a confidant,
fellow partier, editor, witness and a kind of Kato Kaelin to Thompson
until Cowan moved out at age 35.
Living so close, Cowan populates his book with the requisite
anecdotes necessary in describing the brilliant writer. But unlike
Thompson's other biographers, friends and acquaintances, Cowan was
there for the long haul, not just the occasional party or weekend visit
or nocturnal romp. As such, Cowan's biography evokes a kind of pathos
missing from other reports: We see the writer's disquiet with how his
reputation and public image force him to sink steadily into the crazed
personality we all wished him to be. We see glimpses of the man, and
the long, slow decline that was longer and slower than it should have
been, given the copious amount of narcotics, alcohol and firearms he
Intermixed with the parties with Jack Nicholson and Jimmy Buffet,
Cowan gives us Thompson's never-ending litigation, frank talk of his
cocaine bills and bar tabs, the too-oft prodding of a comatose Thompson
to finish his copy in the minutes before a column deadline, and the
warning shots fired over Cowan's house. At one point, Cowan and other
members of Thompson's cohort even tried to stage an
intervention—obviously a fruitless, even foolish, effort given
that drugs and alcohol were integral to Thompson's identity. Still,
within the horror and danger and decay, Cowan remains true to his
friend and mentor, always describes the depth of Thompson's intellect,
his razor-edged humor, his kindness and loyalty. The highlight of the
book—for me, anyway—was the examination of Thompson as a
writer, and, not unsurprising from Cowan as editor, the lavish
attention given to Thompson's edits and notes, or the spoor of
Thompson's intellectual writing process.
Still, at times Cowan's biography reads like a star-struck lesser
talent in thrall to a hero—which is undoubtedly true, if he was
willing to stay on under Thompson's shadow and patronage as long as he
did. Too often Cowan finds himself making excuses for the writer's
excesses and his own tolerance of them. But he's not alone. Hunter S.
Thompson himself was a victim of the allure of his own mythic stature.
"Myths and legends die hard in America," wrote Thompson. "We love them
for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite
possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men's reality." No
doubt. But what's missing here is the fatal effect of that illusion on
flesh, even as mythos endures.
Jay Cowan reads from Hunter S. Thompson at Fact & Fiction
Thursday, Aug. 13, at 7 PM. Free.