This moving and intermittently fascinating memoir from Juan F. Thompson, the son of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, is notable as much for its sensitive depiction of a fraught father-son relationship as it is for any special insights into the legendary author of such classics as “Hell’s Angels” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
Born in 1964, Juan Thompson was the product of Hunter’s first marriage, which was undergoing a fractious dissolution throughout Thompson’s childhood. It turns out that Hunter Thompson was just about what you might expect as a father, “always brilliant, often monstrous, sometimes tender and funny,” and essentially ruthless in his self-absorption and drive. (The book features marvelous photographs, including one from 1970 of Hunter Thompson and Oscar Z. Acosta, the Chicano-rights activist and model for the attorney Dr. Gonzo in “Fear and Loathing,” looking like what they were: the two baddest men in America.)
The turmoil of growing up in the household of one of the counterculture’s most celebrated figures seems to have been troubling and often wrenching but not permanently crippling to Juan Thompson. He displays a rueful resilience and a remarkably generous spirit throughout these pages. A self-described “nerd” who “loved books, computers and fantasy role-playing games” and had “no interest in sports,” he is perceptive about the pressure he felt to live up to his father’s macho, hyperarticulate swagger. An early and misguided attempt by Juan Thompson at opening up to his father led Hunter Thompson to wonder, with some anxiety, whether his son might be gay. The fumbling letters between the two during this period, which Juan Thompson quotes at length, are painful to read, so palpable is the gap between the two men.
One doesn’t need to be the son of Hunter Thompson, of course, to feel damaged or cowed by a gruff, violent patriarch; that dynamic is common, and Juan Thompson’s version is plangent enough to spark identification but not perhaps transcendence. The memoir follows the arc of many paternal relationships, with the son moving from hatred of a father who was a “monster, a bastard and a dangerous man,” to empathy and finally halting reconciliation. Even so, there is considerable pathos in Juan Thompson’s attempts to win his father’s admiration through such Thompson-esque rituals as cleaning guns, riding motorcycles and blowing things up.
Juan Thompson is unflinching in his depiction of his father’s decline, and he writes with great emotional openness about his suicide, in 2005, at the age of 67. The account of the later stages of the great man’s deterioration is so harrowing as to provide a stinging rebuke to the countless imitators who took inspiration from Hunter Thompson’s hell-for-leather drinking and drug-taking. It makes for grisly reading: Hunter Thompson undergoing acute alcohol withdrawal while under anesthesia, Thompson losing control of his bowels, Thompson urinating in public, Thompson lashing out at nurses and doctors while incapacitated.
Most devastating was the unmooring of the mind that for so long had crackled with wit and fury. Through all the drugs and late nights and violence and despair, Hunter Thompson had always taken a soldierly pride in the practice of his avocation, which, despite the constant tumult, he approached with the dedication of a craftsman. “When the going gets weird,” he was fond of saying, “the weird turn pro.” The slogan took on a talismanic force over the years, only to fail him in the end. In later years “a combination of shame and fear . . . drove him to the typewriter late at night,” Juan Thompson recalls. “The next morning there might be a page, but sometimes there were only a few sentences. . . . It was hard to watch.” he adds. Back in 1964, Hunter Thompson had written about the suicide of his idol Ernest Hemingway, observing that the “power of conviction is a hard thing for any writer to sustain, and especially so once he becomes conscious of it.” Little did he know then that he would one day face the same loss of power or that he would solve it in the same way.
Though frequently engaging, in the end, “Stories I Tell Myself” feels faintly underpowered. It’s neither accomplished enough to ascend into the ranks of memorable literary memoirs nor irreverent enough to qualify as a delicious celebrity tell-all. Juan Thompson is an above-average writer, with a way with an anecdote, but his account lacks the mystic spark that animates truly great writing. The book adds depth and color to our understanding of Hunter Thompson without being terribly surprising or revelatory. For that we may have to wait for someone standing a little further away from the subject.
Michael Lindgren is a writer and musician in Jersey City.
By Juan F. Thompson
Knopf. 288 pp. $26.95