Fear and loathing turned intellectual giant into a literary sideshow

AT THE same time as Pope John Paul II was struggling to hang on to his life in Rome, another famous man was putting paid to his life in the USA. Using a gun. Also a telephone, but we’ll come to that later.

First of all, the idolators went to work. The man who invented gonzo journalism was dead. Hunter S Thompson had shot himself. End of an era. The great iconoclast refused to surrender to the indignities of old age. What courage. Way to go, Hunter S.

A wave of nostalgia for the ’60s swept over many people on both sides of the Atlantic. Oh, the ’60s, those questioning rebellious days of flowers in our hair, peace in our hearts, drugs in our veins and sex everywhere. Those days when the guidebooks for living were written by Timothy Leary, Tom Wolfe or Hunter S Thompson.

Timothy Leary was a doctor who portrayed LSD as creatively empowering. Drop a tab and you’d write the great American or Irish novel by teatime and design the psychedelic cover while you were at it. Leary provided a rationale for writers and artists to take drugs, holding that once you were high, you saw things in a more multifaceted way, understood them in a deeper way. He never accepted the obvious: that the prose emerging after LSD trips was incoherent and inordinately boring.

Hunter S Thompson’s life could have been based on the Leary thesis. Throwing away the wheelbarrow loaded with facts, which had been the standard approach to journalism up to that point, Thompson, drunk as a skunk or high on whatever illicit chemicals were handy, delivered a mad, reckless, riotous, opinionated and profane new product dubbed gonzo journalism. Find him a sacred cow and he’d assassinate it with neon-coloured flashing words in a drug-fuelled fluency.

Now, admittedly, his prissy white-suited contemporary, Tom Wolfe, could kill off sacred cows (his evisceration of Leonard Bernstein still serves as a master-class in gizzard-removal) in a frenzy of witty words without ingesting much more than the occasional half-glass of wine. Admittedly, also, Thompson’s output wasn’t that voluminous. Not compared with predecessors like Balzac, who fuelled his creativity only with strong coffee. And lots of it - roughly 70 cups a day.

Thompson might have produced a lot more work, and particularly a lot more good work, if he hadn’t been, in his own words, “a dope fiend”. Drugs weren’t the only problem. Becoming a brand name didn’t help, either. It allowed him to invent gonzo journalism, which put the journalist centre-stage, obviating the necessity for observation and note-taking and sobriety: all the gonzo journalist had to do was spew impressions and opinions.

Once he had established the first name, initial and last name, backed it up with a few fabulous early essays, and surrounded himself with the myth of genius fertilised by drugs, it actually didn’t matter what work he produced thereafter. Readers imprinted with his myth kept buying the new collections as they came out every couple of years. Those faithful aficionados didn’t check the quality of the later books against the quality of the earlier ones. If they had, they’d have discovered that Thompson was finished years ago. That he had eaten away at his own essence and was a hollowed-out shell, prating the same anti-establishment stuff long after the establishment was dead, distracting from the hate-filled emptiness of his routine by the occasional wonderful phrase or insight. The lights were still on, but nobody was home. The drink and drugs Leary posited as the great enablers of talent actually stifled Thompson’s abilities and turned him into a familiar caricature: the non-delivering relic of former greatness who must be humoured and pandered to.

Having established himself as a name, Thompson did what every alcoholic or drug-addicted writer in the history of journalism has done: force some poor forgotten figure at a publishing house or magazine to nurse and chase him. Nurse him through the screaming meemies of the DTs, nurse him through the debts his drinking and high-living caused and chase him for copy.

The editor Max Perkins did that nursing for Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald. Dozens of magazine editors did it for Thompson, and in the past week, many of them wrote about him with great affection. None of them seemed to realise that - in aggregate - their stories boiled down to a repetitive anecdote of an unpleasant if gifted man avoiding his professional obligations by drinking and drug-taking, partying and puking. By the late ’70s, Thompson had little to offer. But whereas JD Salinger, in the same situation, decided that he had damn all else to offer the reading public and simply shut up, Thompson didn’t. He became a literary sideshow. A cultural clown. A cherished throwback. Like Kenneth Tynan.

IN MANY ways, Tynan was the British equivalent of Thompson. He was an intellectual giant, arguably the best theatre critic Britain ever produced. But, like Thompson, Tynan did a bureau-de-change transaction with his genius, swapping it for the short-term currency of outrageousness. Outrageousness pays well, in the here and now. So Tynan became - shock, horror - the first man to say the F word live on television, a moment of cultural significance roughly equivalent to Emu knocking Michael Parkinson off the sofa. Then Tynan became involved in the production of Oh, Calcutta, the title of which derived from a French phrase meaning “What a splendid posterior you have.” Then he slid into sick obscurity.

Thompson never slid into outright obscurity. “New” collections of his work appeared every couple of years. These collections brutally illustrate how little of the good stuff actually existed: the most recent collections are recycled scrapings and dregs, some of them from the “unpublished and unpublishable” drawer, trading on sentimentality and overblown reverence.

He wrote occasional columns for newspapers, assisted, according to her, by his wife, a woman half his age and - if her comments after his death are anything to go by - half his intelligence, too.

Last weekend, he and this woman, with whom he’d lived with for two years, had a fight. She stamped off to the gym. He telephoned her mobile. She heard clicking noises which, it turns out, was him cocking the gun. His son, in the house with him at the time, heard what he thought was a book falling. When he went to investigate, he found his father with the back of his head blown off, courtesy of a gun inserted in the mouth. He had talked of “doing a Hemingway”, and his wife thinks he did it very well: he managed to leave his face intact. She said he wanted his ashes blown out of a cannon, and she plans to do just that.

His death and subsequent explosive dispersal, in their tacky nastiness, are the logical conclusions to his life and add up to a post-mortem health warning to others.

Writers who stop writing and become the story, who love guns and dislike people (including themselves) and who believe alcohol or drugs boost their talent tend to become sad parodies of themselves long before they run out of years.

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