Monday, February 21, 2005

Hunter S. Thompson, R.I.P.

Before there was Michael Moore, there was Hunter Stockton Thompson.

When I was in college, I flirted with the idea of journalism as a career. Part of my reasons for that was the writing of Hunter Thompson. He hit his peak period during Richard Nixon's second term, and his writing was and is pretty much unforgettable.

If you read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, there's a chapter in which Thompson reminisces about his life in the 1960's, the era of Free Love, Acid and Berkeley, and how the movement essentially self-destructed. It's powerful stuff, blunt and unforgiving in its judgment.

If you look at Thompson's work for Rolling Stone magazine during that era, you'll realize: this guy was blogging long before blogging was invented. Although he did the occasional interview, he relied on the nightly newscasts and newspapers to fuel his stories, the same resources most of us bloggers use today.

He also combined fact and fiction in his stories, blended so smoothly that it's no surprise that famous people were nervous around him. He once suggested that presidential candidate Ed Muskie, the Howard Dean of his era, was on a drug called Ibogaine when Muskie had a public display of temper. Readers believed it. (You know what the MSM is really afraid of? That a blogger with Thompson's writing skills will emerge and target them directly.)

Thompson called his style "Gonzo journalism," the type of writing where the author becomes part of the story. And here's where he holds the edge over Michael Moore: Thompson was not ashamed of his involvement. While Moore has a habit of downplaying his role in his films, Thompson had no qualms about getting involved with both barrels. He ran for political office (sheriff of Aspen County, Colorado), which gave him an edge in his political coverage because he could sympathize with candidates for high office, having been one himself.

Cartoonist Garry Trudeau immortalized him in his Doonesbury comic strip as Uncle Duke (for which Thompson threatened to rip Trudeau's lungs out), and he's been played on screen by Bill Murray and Johnny Depp. Depp's portrayal was probably the one he liked best, but one gets the feeling from his public comments that he was never satisfied with anyone else's attempts to describe him: they get the surface, but not what's beneath.

It was announced yesterday that Thompson had died, an apparent suicide. I'm saddened but not surprised. His era passed on during the Reagan/Bush years, when it became obvious to him that readers were more enamored of his literary style than the ideas that it held. He was known to be a fan of Hemingway, and to be honest I think he liked the idea of going out on his own terms.