NEW YORK -- For the 7 million other people in this city, it's midafternoon. But for Hunter S. Thompson, it's an unfriendly dawn. Breakfast for six is cooling in his suite's living room, waiting for the star of the show to emerge. Occasional thuds can be heard as he moves around the bedroom, tiny collisions with the environment, which proves at least he's awake. Not to mention alive.

Few would have bet on it. Back in the early '70s, his physician wrote him a letter saying he'd be dead in a year if he didn't slacken his intake of drugs and alcohol. The doctor then retired, confident in his warning, but recently Thompson heard from him again: "You have done amazing things since your death 16 years ago... ."

Making it through them would be the principal one. The 51-year-old practitioner of the New Journalism who aced the form with "Hell's Angels," the inventor of Gonzo Journalism in the classic "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," the political writer who helped reshape the game with his coverage in Rolling Stone of the Nixon-McGovern match, has been reduced in his latest outing, "Songs of the Doomed," to including snippets of unpublished novels and documents pertaining to last year's drug bust at his Colorado home.

From a literary point of view, in fact, it's been a slide ever since his doctor told him he was done for. Maybe the doc was speaking metaphorically. Even Thompson's latest gig, writing a column for the San Francisco Examiner, has come to an end in a welter of accusations about expenses.

"I think I'd better get back to writing for money pretty quick, or I might die," he says in a letter to his agent that is lying on one of the tables in the suite. "I feel like a junkie who got trapped by accident in the Bagdad airport on the day of the Kuwaitinvasion -- with no sleep, no cash, and just enough drugs to make it through the long flight to Rome. ... And then ...

"WHAT do you mean ... the flight's cancelled?!"

Two publicists are lingering, waiting only for Thompson to appear before they can disappear. They both have places to go on this Friday before Christmas, and in addition both are ill. In the meantime, they answer the phone. A waiter has brought up more eggs, the first batch having been deemed overpoached. The rejects lie scattered around the room, plump little white pods that could star in a remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

The phone rings for the 10th time. It's Jane Wenner, wife of Jann, the owner of Rolling Stone. Jann Wenner himself has called. Despite their regular public denunciations of each other, Jann and Thompson go back too far, and their reputations are too wrapped up in each other, to be anything but friends.

Thompson is talking on the phone in the bedroom to someone else. Out in the world, people are leaving work early, finishing their Christmas shopping, hanging the stockings by the chimney with care. In Suite 822 of the Carlyle Hotel -- which, since you're wondering, goes for about $600 a night -- the new eggs are cold. One of the publicists sets about reheating them in the kitchen.

Eventually, the door to the bedroom opens. It's not a grand entrance, but at this stage no one is picky. "This is just so crazy," Thompson mutters by way of introduction. "I'll never travel again without a huge staff. You should see how I was yesterday, with no one."

He walks around the room, bottle of Chivas Regal in hand. With all its trays of food the room resembles an obstacle course but even aside from this, Thompson moves jerkily, as if his body weren't quite used to doing such a thing. "Anyone want any of this food?" he says to no one in particular. "There's a lot here." His eggs are cold again.

The phone rings. It's for him.

"I was hopeless yesterday," he says into the mouthpiece. "I kept bumping into things, cracked my knee on the TV set, all kinds of terrible things. ... Did you go to that George Plimpton thing last night? I was going to go and I just crashed."

He sneezes. And again. "All I {expletive} need now." And again. "I'm allergic to the telephone. ... Call me later."

Thompson has propped open the door to the hallway, and now opens a window. "Gotta create a wind tunnel effect," he says vaguely. Freezing air begins to move through the room. One of the publicists manages to slip away. Before the other can leave, she needs Thompson to sign a huge poster advertising "Songs of the Doomed" for the Hard Rock Cafe. This is easier said than done. For one thing, he can't find a flat writing surface big enough to lay the poster on.

A low scream issues from his belly, and he nimbly flips one of the Villeroy & Boch breakfast plates off the coffee table and onto one of the room service carts, where it shatters. At least some space has been cleared. Unfortunately, the publicist has one more thing for him to sign, and the reaction is the same. This time it is his pen that he throws. It hits several finely spun miniature carafes of tomato juice, breaking the necks off.

Writing, it seems, does not come easily to Thompson these days. The cover of "Songs of the Doomed" shows him shooting a typewriter. Quite a change from his heyday, when his pistol was a pen, or as he immodestly put it in 1975: "I am one of the best writers currently using the English language as both a musical instrument and a political weapon."

The phone rings again. It is the New York Times, calling to see if he will write an op-ed piece. He has already lined up a regular column with Esquire. He will soon be going to the Soviet Union, a trip he says he will write up for Rolling Stone. There is a book in preparation on his drug trial in Colorado last year. And he's eager to complete a novel, "Polo Is My Life."

From the letter to his agent: "I feel in the mood to write a long weird story -- a tale so strange & terrible that it will change the brain of the normal reader forever. ... Which is not a crime -- but almost, in some precincts -- and in Arizona they hang you for it.

"So what?

"A lot of bad weird things happen in Arizona. Power moves very nakedly in that corner of the desert, and only the rich survive to tell their side of the story. ... Every time I fly into Phoenix, for instance, I expect to be killed. Not immediately. Not at the airport. But almost any time after that. ... Hell, you never know in Arizona. Some people get killed and some don't. ... But even if you get out alive, you always know somebody wanted to kill you; they just didn't get around to it, this time."

This is a nice piece of gonzo writing. The writer agrees, offers to have a bellman go out and make copies. The last publicist is gone, despite Thompson's pleas to remain. The phone is ringing. It's his girlfriend, who is trapped in Colorado by a snowstorm and is finding herself unable to join him. He is distraught about the prospect of not seeing her, or maybe just at the notion of being alone.

When Thompson's not moving, he still looks solid enough to kick the daylights out of an office candy machine, which is how he got fired from the Middletown (N.Y.) Daily Record about 1960 or so. The hair is sparse -- most of it, according to one account, fell out more than 25 years ago due to "repeated dosages of speed and cortisone and fear" -- but the eyes can still make contact. When he's not shouting, he's capable of calming down into something resembling amiability.

At a very early point during his youth in Kentucky, he says, "I could see myself getting into patterns where I wouldn't have to worry about a social security card." When he was 9, his grandmother set up an account for him at Louisville Trust. Shortly thereafter, young Hunter withdrew all the funds. "Last time I ever had a savings account," he says. "I guess I do have some life insurance I got a long time ago. I guess I couldn't get it if they knew who I was."

He has no great philosophic ruminations about why he turned out this way. Between 1962 and 1975, he writes in "Songs of the Doomed," "I managed -- by using almost any kind of valid or invalid journalistic credentials I could get my hands on -- to get myself personally involved in just about everything that interested me: from Berkeley to Chicago, Las Vegas to the White House, shark-fishing, street-fighting, dope-smuggling, Hell's Angels, Super Bowls, local politics, and a few things I'd prefer not to mention until various statutes of limitations expire."

Risking his life in the process, he says now, "wasn't a conscious decision, just more fun. ... I never meant to become famous for high-wire dancing, but I'm afraid I've become addicted to my own adrenaline."

It also pays the bills. The new book, which consists of uncollected pieces over the last 30 years plus a running commentary linking them together, is doing moderately well; his previous collection of articles, "Generation of Swine" in 1988, was a bona fide bestseller. And there's always money to be made on the college circuit, where he is celebrated by youths who weren't born when Thompson made his name covering events in such deranged fashion you never knew what was the truth, and didn't care either. "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," his most sustained performance, begins like this:

"We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like 'I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive. ...' And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: 'Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?' "

Even now, asked how much reality entered into his crazed exploits while simultaneously covering a motorcycle race in the desert and a drug conference of district attorneys, he will merely say, "It's dangerous to answer that one." Perhaps he means dangerous to his reputation; perhaps "Fear and Loathing" is a novel and that likewise the rather mild events of this afternoon, with Thompson letting out a primal scream every time the phone rings and busting the crockery whenever the opportunity presents itself, are only the writer trying to keep his myth intact.

The phone rings. It's the guy from the New York Times again. A Times reporter who did a recent feature on Thompson is also trying to get in touch, as is a writer doing a profile of Rolling Stone essayist P.J. O'Rourke. Call back, everyone is told.

Besides the college crowd, which knows a party animal when it sees one, Thompson is a defiant hero to journalists who have been told by their editors to keep a close watch on expense accounts in these recessionary times. His definition of "restraint": "I don't have wild parties or charge tuxedos to the hotel, but I do bitch when I can't get a laundry bag full of cash to leave the country immediately. I don't work long for people who don't pay the expenses, let's put it that way."

Speaking of which, it's time for more room service. His supply of Chivas is vanishing rapidly, and you never can tell when you'll run out of beer. "A small pitcher of orange juice, six Heinekens, a bottle of Chivas Regal ... a bucket of ice. What sort of desserts you got down there? Tortes? Fruit tarts? And two dozen long-stemmed roses."

He pauses again, during which time the room service operator, clearly realizing he has a live one on the line, asks if there's anything else they can do for their guest, anything at all. "This is fun, isn't it?" Thompson asks. But the only other thing he can come up with is a rather weak request for "an afternoon paper," of which New York does not exactly boast an abundance.

By now it's night. There remains a special topic Thompson wants to talk about -- his arrest last year for allegedly fondling a journalist, subsequent to which his Woody Creek, Colo., home was raided and a bit of cocaine, some LSD and a couple of sticks of dynamite were discovered. He beat the sexual assault and drug raps -- the prosecutor dropped the charges right as the trial was beginning -- but is still incensed at the whole matter.

"I thought if I ever had to go to the Supreme Court, it would be because of the First Amendment." That's the one about Thompson's freedom to call someone "a lying Nazi bastard" in print. These days, however, it's the Fourth Amendment he's concerned about, which is the one concerning unreasonable search and seizure. "If they can come and get me in Woody Creek," he says, "they can get the bastard in the next creek over."

He's thinking about suing the government, and has set up a Fourth Amendment Foundation. "The Constitution," he declares, "is not just a document in Philadelphia somewhere, but it should have prevented them from coming in."

There's a knock on the door. Thompson, who has forgotten all about ordering room service, gives a little yelp. Clearly, this is not someone you should sneak up on and tap on the shoulder. The waiter brings in the cart. There is no room; one of the breakfast carts will have to go. The waiter eyes the broken plate. "Sorry," says Thompson guilelessly. "Something happened."

The phone rings. There's another knock on the door. It's the guy with the roses. Truly, an impressive bunch of flowers. Of course, for $270.63 -- the total on the attached bill -- they had better be. Like the waiter, the man who brought the flowers leaves without a tip.

"I don't even have time to abuse myself, these days," Thompson says. He means with drugs. "I'm an addictive personality, but I'm also addicted to functioning. I consider myself essentially a road man for the boys upstairs, the Lords of Karma."

From these random statements, the conversation slides into talk about his mother, Virginia Ray Thompson. "She was always worried about me. 'Why don't you get a job? Why are you being arrested all the time?' It took her a while to realize I was a writer. She still tongue-waxes me. ... It terrifies me that my mother's 84. You want to be 84?"

Considering the alternative, yes. Hunter Thompson, however, has made his living by dancing on the edge. Recently, it's true, the abyss seems to be winning. There's a line in "Songs of the Doomed" about a man whose "brain was so rotted with drink and dissolute living that whenever he put it to work it behaved like an old engine that had gone haywire from being dipped in lard." That, his detractors say, is a self-portrait.

But perhaps Thompson, having made it this far, might just surprise everyone and pull off his big book. He describes "Polo Is My Life" as "just a good, old-fashioned love story, like 'Psycho' or 'Blue Velvet.' " He wants $9 million for it. He says he's got a dinner lined up with Sonny Mehta, the president of Alfred A. Knopf and recently a very successful publisher with some money to spare. Perhaps, perhaps.

First, though, there's some serious partying to be done. When Thompson is last seen, he is talking on the phone. A chill wind blows through the room. There are empty beer bottles everywhere, and little pieces of glass on the floor. "Why don't you come over?" he is saying. "This is not a night to be alone."