It would be all too tempting to claim that reading Dr. Hunter S. Thompson lured me into journalism. It would be all too tempting to claim that reading Dr. Hunter S. Thompson did not lure me into journalism, either. Let me explain.
Few things are more fun than reading Thompson for the first time, especially as a bored Salt Lake City teenager. And I’ve always been in favor of a good time. I mean, forget Jack Kerouac. Like scores of teenagers before me, I swallowed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas whole, devoured The Great Shark Hunt, and probably read Hell’s Angels at least twice. But once you get your fingers dirty in journalism, you learn quickly that the profession is never as much fun as Thompson makes it out to be. Unless, of course, you were as talented as Dr. Thompson: The outlaw, the gun nut, the prince of paranoia who persuaded thousands that the only way to properly digest the American Dream was through ingesting platefuls of drugs and constant retention of a personal attorney, “somewhere around Barstow,” of course.
Countless imitators attempted to insert themselves inside every story they wrote after reading Dr. Thompson. I remember the first time I tried it myself. Dismal failure it was, too. But my failure, along with the failure of countless other lesser scribes led to that well-known saw, “I wanted to write like Dr. Thompson, but I didn’t have the patience.”
Forget for a moment the tragedy of suicide. It’s fitting, really, that a man self-absorbed enough to put himself at the center of almost everything he wrote would put a handgun to his head, as he did early this week. If you want to know a dirty secret, journalists and writers are some of the most self-centered people you’re likely to meet. What is more arrogant, after all, than believing you might create phrases, ideas or statements worth offering the reading public?
Because he made us laugh like fools, and because few could swing a sentence with more force, Thompson will probably always be read. But let’s be honest, too. When your hyperbole gets as entertaining as Thompson’s, the truth suffers. President Nixon may well have embodied, as Thompson wrote, “that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character.” But rhetoric like that, indeed all of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, can’t compare to books such as Fred Emery’s Watergate, which took the trouble to show us in great detail, rather than tell us, why Nixon cut such a disturbing, desperate figure in American politics.
Truth be told, Thompson rarely had the guts for true reporting. He freaked on an assignment to cover the fall of Saigon, submitting an expense account without ever filing a story. He set the stage for a brand of journalism where tone, texture and sheer outrageousness took precedence over the painstaking workshop of facts, detail and the thankless pursuit of such outworn notions as “objectivity.” For that we can thank him, and damn him. Whether they know it or not, conservative firebrands such as Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity owe Dr. Thompson a huge debt, even if they’ll never reach his summit. Oh that we had more voices like his today. Hopefully those writers are passing Barstow even now, but with fewer drugs in tow.