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The Dark Star

Gloom May Have Stalked Hunter S. Thompson, but His Writing Was a Beacon

By Henry Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2005; Page C01

From Hunter S. Thompson's "Songs of the Doomed -- More Notes on the Death of the American Dream":

"It has been raining a lot recently. Quick thunderstorms and flash floods . . . lightning at night and fear in the afternoon. People are worried about electricity.

From "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." (Ralph Steadman)

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"Nobody feels safe. Fires burst out on dry hillsides, raging out of control, while dope fiends dance in the rancid smoke and animals gnaw each other. Foreigners are everywhere, carrying pistols and bags of money. There are rumors about murder and treachery and women with no pulse. Crime is rampant and even children are losing their will to live.

"The phones go dead and power lines collapse, whole families plunged into darkness with no warning at all. People who used to be in charge walk around wall-eyed, with their hair standing straight up on end, looking like they work for Don King, and babbling distractedly about their hearts humming like stun guns and trying to leap out of their bodies like animals trapped in bags."

He wrote this in Washington, in 1989.

As his first wife, Sandy, once said: "Hunter tends to make things worse than they are sometimes."

Thompson, at 67, was the gonzo journalist who shot himself in the head with a handgun on Sunday. He was also what you get when you combine Murphy's Law and some hillbilly Calvinist preaching the doctrine of innate depravity. He believed every man had it in him to do wrong. He also believed that if something could go wrong it would. We were all doomed, to use one of his favorite words.

Hence the birth of gonzo journalism, a term he picked up from a fan letter, and one that applied only to him. He was the prose laureate of the Age of Paranoia, which began, let's say, with the election of Richard Nixon in the middle of the counterculture's nonstop mental fire drill brought on by psychedelic drugs. Then he took it further, as he took most things: "There's no such thing as paranoia," he said. "The truth is, your worst fears always come true."

This was the fundamental joke that served as the fulcrum and lever of all his writing, starting with "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved." He attained "full-bore" torque, or maybe "king-hell" torque, to use his phrasing, with "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas -- A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream," followed by "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72," which George McGovern's political director, Frank Mankiewicz, called "the most accurate and least factual" account of the election. Other Thompson titles: "Generation of Swine," "Songs of the Doomed" and a short piece called "Hit Him Again, Jack, He's Crazy."

You get the idea.

He was from Louisville, a former juvenile delinquent and "hard case," as he liked to say: a big tense guy, 6 feet 3 with tight skin, wary eyes, short hair and a hectic way of moving, as if he were trying and failing to approximate the condition of normal. He wore aviator sunglasses and smoked with a cigarette holder. He looked like a combination of puzzled and threatening. He liked Dobermans and guns and liked to "get loaded on mescaline and fire my .44 magnum out into the dark -- that long blue flame." He spoke in bursts of words that later in his life became so unintelligible that a documentary about him provided subtitles. He had a sharp eye for the right people and he hung out with them. He had charisma. Being around him gave you the charmed but unsettled feeling of having joined an entourage. He took a lot of drugs and drank a lot of Wild Turkey. Louisa Davidson, who knew Thompson in Colorado for 30 years, said he was a Southern gentleman with moments of genius, but "he was a prisoner and slave to his addictions." He could be polite, when he wasn't picking an occasional fight, but there was nothing mellow or laid-back about him.

Thompson on the '72 candidates:

Being around Edmund Muskie "was something like being locked in a rolling box car with a vicious 200-pound water rat." Nixon "speaks for the werewolf in us." And Hubert Humphrey, the saint of long-ago liberalism: "There is no way to grasp what a shallow, contemptible and hopelessly dishonest old hack Hubert Humphrey is until you've followed him around for a while."

Strange that he became a hero to a generation known for its long-haired, "gettin' it all together," feminist, free-sex pacifists. Thompson wanted to break it all apart, and he rarely mentioned women or sex in his writing.

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