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The Dark Star

In 1971, at the beginning of his big-time fame, he'd already written the obit for the '60s, a time when "you could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning." But by then, "with the right kind of eyes, you can almost see the high-water mark -- that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."

People will forgive almost anything of writers who can astonish them and make them laugh. None of them can anymore. In his early '70s heyday, which was the last time that writers could still be heroes -- he was among the very last of them, along with Ken Kesey and Tom Wolfe, all of them outrageous in style and subject, the final heirs of J.P. Donleavy, Joseph Heller, J.D. Salinger and Terry Southern, who all taught us the irreverence that Thompson made even more hilarious by taking it into the craziness that comes with sticking the big toe of your brain in the socket of "high-powered blotter acid," and "uppers, downers, screamers, laughers."

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

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Hunter S. Thompson
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He was a particular hero to journalists, whose terrible secret is that beneath all the globe-hopping and news anchor fame, they are merely clerks and voyeurs. Thompson, despite his rants about the onanistic squalor of journalism, had the bearing of an adventurer striding out to the very edges of madness and menace. He had much rep for walking the walk, which he did, but mostly he talked the talk. In fact, he'd never done very much in his life except write about it, which he did with clarity, hilarity and big-train momentum. He was a master stylist -- he once typed out the entire "Great Gatsby" as an exercise. He also created a pyrotechnic public persona called Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. How much more can we ask?

He'd done a little jail time as a kid in Louisville. He joined the Air Force, which let him out two years early after a prescient commanding officer said that in Thompson's military newspaper work his "flair for invention and imagination" and his "disregard for military dress and authority . . . seem to rub off on the other airmen."

He worked for small papers, wrote from South America for a now-gone Dow Jones weekly called the National Observer, drove a taxi in San Francisco while working on a novel, got in fistfights, ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colo., got pulled over for drunk driving, beat a drug bust at his home in Woody Creek, near Aspen -- small-time stuff. Rolling Stone sent him to cover the fall of Vietnam -- where he could find no end of real fear and loathing -- but he split for Laos and failed to file a story worth mentioning. In 2000, he slightly wounded his assistant while trying to shoot a bear on his property.

And yet readers worshiped him as a man of profound experience, to the point of playing what you might call "the Hunter Thompson game." The point of the game is to create mortal fear out of nothing more than, say, the sun flashing in a window.

First man: You see that glint?

Second man: Like binoculars?

First man: Try 12-power Unertl glass on a Remington .308.

Second man: Your first wife's boyfriend?

First man: But he's a cop.

Second man: Exactly. Our heads? In four seconds? Vapor, baby.

This is the sort of conversation that boys have in treehouses, to scare themselves for the fun of it. Thompson's writing had the venerable American quality of boys' literature, in the manner of Hemingway, Jack London and Mark Twain. And of: old-fashioned sports writing, with its flamboyance and moralities, and the good but long-forgotten men's magazines such as True or Argosy, which honored the courage, luck and jocularity of the lone cowboys lurking in American men. Lately, with his best writing behind him, the gonzo just a collection of occasional gestures, he'd been writing a sports column for ESPN's Web site.

We're left wondering what happened. He once said: "I hate to advocate weird chemicals, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone . . . but they've always worked for me." Until maybe he got wondering about the ultimate high being a 1,500-feet-per-second implantation in the neurological system.

Or the paranoia got to him -- in paranoia you are your own worst enemy, and that's a tightening circle that nobody can escape, except, say, by suicide. Or it was pain and depression brought on by reported back surgery, a broken leg and a hip replacement. Or he was playing out the last moves of the Hemingway game -- the paranoid, shock-treated Hemingway who ended up with his doctor one day, crying because he said that he couldn't write anymore, he just couldn't write. Or America has finally become what he said it was, with lie-awake fears of suitcase nukes, jails full of secret uncharged prisoners with no legal recourse, and quiet applause for the recreational torture of Arabs in Iraq. Or people have stopped reading, and there are no more literary heroes. Or maybe he just killed himself, like a number of other people on any given day. He lived on his terms, he died on his own terms.

Except he wasn't like a number of people -- he left us his prose, his genius persona, and his insights into the dark side of America, insights that could change your life after the laughing stopped. You would like to think that beneath the forbidding scowl of post-9/11 America, and despite the dark side, that a lot of people understand that Hunter S. Thompson was a great American.

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