By Justyn Dillingham
America has lost its greatest writer.
That might sound like absurd hyperbole, and maybe it is. But since Hunter S. Thompson was the undisputed master of absurd hyperbole, it seems all too fitting.
Thompson, who was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in his Colorado home on Feb. 20, was a revolutionary in the world of journalism.
He was best known for his 1971 masterpiece, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” a hilarious and disturbing account of a weekend Thompson and his attorney spent in that city “in search of the American dream.”
He had many imitators – most of whom, unfortunately, never bothered to learn the rules of journalism before breaking them, as Thompson had – but none came close to his level of blistering wit and scathing insight.
But his writing was often overshadowed by his reputation. On slow days, journalists often joke about going out and stirring up their own news stories. Thompson didn’t just joke about it, he did it.
Whether it was threatening to tar and feather George Bush or greeting guests at a book party by bonking them on the head with a mallet, he was always his own best subject.
He was portrayed twice on screen, first by Bill Murray in the 1980 “Where the Buffalo Roam,” then by Johnny Depp in the adaptation of “Fear and Loathing.” He was also the inspiration for the character of Uncle Duke in Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” – an unauthorized “tribute” that infuriated Thompson.
But Thompson was more than a crazy character. He was also a serious writer who painstakingly crafted every sentence. With its exquisitely dry tone, his writing reflected that of his models, Fitzgerald and Hemingway.
And behind all the antics – and there were enough to fill no less than four biographies during Thompson’s lifetime – lurked the heart of a serious if eccentric moralist.
Thompson certainly couldwrite straight news – he made a living at it for more than a decade before discovering his true voice with his landmark 1970 piece “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.”
But he scorned the idea of “objective” reporting, insisting that it played right into the hands of crafty politicians.
“Objective journalism is one of the main reasons that American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long,” Thompson once said.
“If you were objective about Richard Nixon, you would never get him or understand him.”
Nixon was Thompson’s nemesis, and when the former president died, Thompson was unsparing: “Nixon was so crooked he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning.”
But when George W. Bush and his cronies took over, Thompson said, he found himself almost nostalgic for the Nixon years.
“This administration makes Nixon and his people look like a gang of liberals,” Thompson said in a 2004 interview. “Almost goofy, childlike.”
The 2000 election fiasco made him sick.
“There is an eerie sense of Panic in the air, a silent Fear and uncertainty that comes with once-reliable faiths and truths and solid Institutions that are no longer safe to believe in,” he wrote that November.
“There is a Presidential election, right on schedule, but somehow there is no President.”
As he watched the events of the last four years unfold, Thompson must have felt that he was seeing history repeat itself – and this time, his side wasn’t winning.
He made no bones about whom he considered responsible: “The whole Bush family, from Texas, should be boiled in poison oil.”
He’d been talking about the demise of the American dream since the 1960s, but in his last years, there was a difference. He no longer wrote about it as if he thought it could be stopped.
“I am surprised and embarrassed to be a part of the first American generation to leave the country in far worse shape than it was when we first came into it,” he wrote in 2003.
Thompson never slowed down. His last published column, a week before his death, recounted a late-night call to Bill Murray in which Thompson proposed a new sport called “Shotgun Golf.”
It was his furiously independent spirit that inspired me to become a journalist in the first place. I will miss him.