“The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life…. This is the artist’s way of scribbling ‘Kilroy was here’ on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass.” –William Faulkner, interview with Paris Review, 1956
There are no schools to teach you how to be a writer. You can learn the mechanics of the thing, the grammar and spelling and how to write an outline, but you’ll still be nothing more than a dressed up copy machine. To write something worthwhile, something people will remember for years to come, requires an artist’s eye and touch. You have to be capable of not only capturing life as it happens but bring out what it means; reporters can tell you the percentage of homes back on the market, but it takes a gonzo journalist to notice the semi-deflated balloon dangling from the power-line above a foreclosed home. She reads “happy birthday” in sun-soaked letters, touches the grass once made flat by children’s feet. She asks the neighbor what happened.
“Damn shame,” they mutter, “damn shame is what it is. The whole family had…had just a tremendous personality.” Later at her desk, needing to be numbed by drink, our journalist won’t just write about a family made homeless. Within those paragraphs she’ll write about God, humanity, and a system that promised everything yet never kept its word. Pain, anger, frustration, it will contain everything inside us. The emotions, the images, the very states and subjective storytelling that literally bends reality. The outside wedded to the interior, exo to eso, actual real life. Put on the page it will live on forever, pure art summoned out of real experience.
That’s the kind of writing worth doing. Hunter S. Thompson taught me that.
Strange feelings at the desk tonight. I’m compiling notes and typing away at an article for Gods & Radicals, a very weird one with plenty of thoughts on journalism. For a week I’ve felt this compulsion, like alligators driven to mate, to engage in all manner of magical weirdness. All specifically about writing. Such compulsions usually arise when I’m being pushed somewhere, when some new ledge is heading my way. A few days from now the altar to my left will be ablaze with candles in an attempt to summon something I’ve never attempted before. Beyond that plane tickets are being bought for a future event that…well, certainly makes it seem I’m heading somewhere.
Where I don’t know. For a few months now I’ve been riding this weird zone between total new-comer and semi-infamy, or at least the closest equivalent a journalist advocating revolutionary politics can reach. My last two articles had 6,000 views in a matter of days. I had a book published and co-host a podcast. People write me letters about how my pieces inspire them or dreams they’ve had where I show up.
It’s a long way from the lonely shadow staring out into the darkness of strip malls and death-by-convenience. Probabilities twirl and I’m left thinking of the past and a few dead people I have to thank. About how I got here.
It comes with the magical territory: you get to know dead people very well. Not just in the sense of saints you’ve summoned or ghostly shades you’ve enlisted to help in spells, but spirits that have changed your life. Max Stirner’s graveyard dirt sits on my desk, mere inches away as a type this; one night after downing four tabs of acid I am absolutely certain I was visited by the spirit of Jun Tsuji and taught what being an artist really meant.
But above all one dead person looms in the periphery of mind, unspoken till in a flash of lightning I remember what February 20th means.
Today is the day Hunter S. Thompson killed himself.
I was only a pre-teen when he took his life, and it wouldn’t be till later in my twenties I’d really find his work. Back when I was a kid Thompson was just a character in a movie, a cardboard-cut out that told we buzzed few we were going to be okay. Vodka before class, getting high in abandoned houses, the movie told us weren’t just cool but that we were right. That somewhere out in the world there were other fiends such as ourselves, getting paid and making it big. The infatuation, if any, was fleeting, and we moved on to other heroes.
It wasn’t till I started writing, or at least thinking about it, that I found Hunter again. In an airport on my way to Tennessee I somehow stumbled on one of his first published pieces–a tour through the community of Big Sur.
“If half the stories about Big Sur were true this place would long since have toppled into the sea, drowning enough madmen and degenerates to make a pontoon bridge of bodies all the way to Honolulu.”
I found a home in his visceral and uncompromising prose. Something clicked. Vivid, funny, weird and descriptive, I quickly found myself devouring every article of his I could find. They were all straight journalism, stories about things going on, but something extra was there…an artist’s eye. Something I’d felt in myself but wasn’t quite sure how to develop. I figured when I’d get home I’d order some books and learn from the most entertaining shit I’d ever read.
He was a teacher, in every sense of the word, at least for me. Too poor for any education all I could do was read and try to understand, to see the method behind what appeared so natural. Between his pages I discovered what a triangle lead was, how to shape my beginning and endings, how dialogue could be used or highlighted. Notebooks scattered with phrases like “gonzo is the novelization of reality” hung around on tables and I felt as if I’d discovered a wonderful friend.
Hunter taught me that the real world could be just as bizarre or maddening as any fiction. That it had extra power because it contained real events. People said things, did things, that if pulled from the imagination might not be believed. Thompson, rather than retreat from the world around him, ran at it full force and armed to the teeth.
Other writers I knew wanted to write beautiful words, poems, painted landscapes and glorious futures. Long paragraphs that I quickly skipped over, boring statistics or endless chattering about theories and hypotheticals.
I liked rough words like fuck and piss and shit. I liked calling those I despised wretched, disgusting insects whose teeth deserved to be smashed out with crowbars. I saw a world ravaged and torn and I wanted to bring that home, not hide it. Thompson introduced me to the idea of “wordphotos.” I wanted to introduce them to the crime scenes of a blood-soaked world.
Gonzo journalism wasn’t just “write whatever you want fucked up.” It was a style, a specific vein of narrative. A method hidden by madness. I looked for other gonzo journalists but couldn’t find them. Through Thompson I discovered Tom Wolfe, read Storycraft by Jack Hart, and learned there was an entire theory behind what Hunter was doing. Nobody spoke truth to power quite like Hunter though.
“This is the horror of it: That in 1995 the standard/text high school history books will not say that America in the 1960s was ruled and effectively gutted by a gang of cheap thugs who also happened, for reason of political necessity, to be Mass Murders. The history books will not say that Lyndon Johnson was more vicious than Mussolini and more stupid than Hitler. They will not say that Robert McNamara’s hands were so bloody that after five years he forgot what blood smelled like . . . and that ranking Generals with ‘honored West Point names’ like Taylor & Westmoreland & Abrams were still screaming, all the way to the end, for more blood and bombing and fire . . . and that even in 1971, with the awful truth so obvious that even Senators could see it, the ranking fixers who still ruled the U.S. congress were threatening editors of the New York Times with “prosecution for Treason” because they finally published documented proof of what a whole generation had been screaming in the streets for five years-while fifty thousand others died senselessly to protect a dozen or so wealthy dope-dealers who were also Generals and occasionally Presidents of that cancerously corrupted little finger of Asia called ‘South Vietnam.’
These dirty truths will not appear in the history texts of 1995. The hired fixers will take over just as soon as the undeclared war is unofficially finished-just as soon as the last shark is called off and brought home for an angry rest. And not one of these blood-hungry Hammerheads scumbags will ever be nailed to the final whipsaw judgement they all deserve.”
That same power, the same horror, was all around me. Choking the world, sending it to hell, working my loved ones to death. Gonzo journalism, as a true style valuing first-person narratives, dialogue, and a novelist’s treatment of reality, became my written weapon of choice in a one man war against all I hated.
Thompson’s writing wasn’t just educational, he was a kindred spirit as well. I read his letters in Proud Highway at the same rate crackheads pawn car stereos. This was not the Vegas Thompson, the one who knows he’s made it. The one with the house, the plane tickets, the press pass. This was Thompson carried on by only a vague knowledge that what he had was special, determined to either make it or starve. I saw him arguing with editors, struggling to pay rent, screaming at bill collectors. He was one of us, the dispossessed, trying to explain to people the magic he saw in Fitzgerald’s wordplay. The knowledge that so humble a writer could achieve such greatness inspired me to keep going.
I read him in The Great Shark Hunt. There were stories of madness of course but also Thompson as a young reporter in South America, miraculously giving us a full narrative in what felt like a mere 1,000 words. There was Thompson going out West and musing on the American dream, writing about the Hippy culture, air-force pilots, anything and everything. He was older and successful there too, mentioning drugs but focused like a laser on the ’72 campaign trail. Beyond mere reporter he gave us a glimpse into the seedy world of politics, the open bars for reporters, the cramped hotels, the endless gambling of points and polls. Everywhere Thompson went he was pulling these deeper threads, drawing out themes and motifs that had been there all along but nobody had bothered to see, the same ones that would carry implications we’re living with today:
“One of the strangest things about these five downhill years of the Nixon presidency is that despite all the savage excesses committed by the people he chose to run the country, no real opposition or realistic alternative to Richard Nixon’s cheap and mean-hearted view of the American Dream has ever developed. It is almost as if that sour 1968 election rang down the curtain on career politicians. This is the horror of American politics today – not that Richard Nixon and his fixers have been crippled, convicted, indicted, disgraced and even jailed – but that the only available alternatives are not much better; the same dim collection of burned-out hacks who have been fouling our air with their gibberish for the last twenty years. How long, oh Lord, how long? And how much longer will we have to wait before some high-powered shark with a fistful of answers will finally bring us face-to-face with the ugly question that is already so close to the surface in this country, that sooner or later even politicians will have to cope with it?”
I read him in Hells Angels, a young Thompson again, not just explaining who the Angels were but why and what it truly felt like to ride with them. He brought us to The Edge, into the bars, and even payed the price when he broke the rules and called out an Angel for beating their wife and dog. He went deep into the thick of it, where the action was, far away from everything bland and safe. In the dirty vests and oil-soaked jeans Thompson saw the first waves of something far-reaching and terrible:
“This whole kind of alienated, violent, subculture of people wandering around looking for either an opportunity, or if not an opportunity then vengeance for not getting an opportunity. They get to be 30 and suddenly they wake up one morning and they realize there are no more chances. It’s all gone. It makes them meaner. They want to get back at the people who put them in this terrible, this dead end, tunnel…
…the same venom that the Angels are spewing around in public, a lot of people are just keeping bottled up in private. I think this technological, the science of obsolescence, or the fact that people are becoming obsolete. The people who are most affected by this technological obsolescence are the ones least capable of understanding the reason for it, so the venom builds up much quicker. It feeds on their ignorance.”
The Rum Diary came to me at a very important point in my life. The anxiety of getting older had begun to creep in and I was starting to lose confidence. Working all the time, no time to write, reading Thompson spending his days riding with outlaws or at home banging out words. Here was a Caribbean world I longed for, the simple chance to make a living doing what I wanted and how I wanted to do it. I saw myself sitting in hot rooms with no fan on, typing in air so thick you could choke on it. Sweating, feverishly so, but happy knowing here I could do as I wished. Odd hours, night-time adventures, running on a weird blend of skill and luck. The chance to be my own person, free to get drunk and muse about the greater Truths that swirled around me. Thirteen hour days made all that impossible. I felt like somewhere I fucked up. A silent scream had begun to build within me and I couldn’t quite place it. Something about everything seemed to be eating me alive and it was on one of his pages I found the words I’d been looking for:
“Goddamnit, man, I tell you it’s the fear of the sack! Tell them that this man Kemp is fleeing St. Louis because he suspects the sack is full of something ugly and he doesn’t want to be put in with it. He senses this from afar. This man Kemp is not a model youth. He grew up with two toilets and a football, but somewhere along the line he got warped. Now all he wants is Out, Flee. He doesn’t give a good shit for St. Louis or his friends or his family or anything else…he just wants to find some place where he can breathe…”
I’m still looking for that place, but I know one day I’ll find it. The Rum Diary, written mostly when Thompson was merely twenty-two, let me know I wasn’t the only one with the Fear I’d never get free.
Not many people know Thompson’s pain, the hidden tragedy of his life. He watched the hippies get jobs and vote gleefully for the Iraq War, watched the Democrats toughen drug laws and incarcerate millions. Reading his letters and watching him speak I saw him struggle with the knowledge that the one thing he’d always be known for was pure fiction; his life, his journalism had been brushed aside for a character he created, leading him to openly wonder if it was better if he just died to get out of the way of the legend.
This version of him seems forgotten by your average reader, the same person who warned us to “never create anything, it will be misinterpreted, it will chain you and follow you for the rest of your life.” The image of Thompson, a larger than life character that hinted the “tyranny of the rat race was not yet final” ended up consuming him. He became food for other people. The same writer who wrestled with the modern world and spent his life pointing at difficult truths was enshrined by an entire public who couldn’t stop staring at his finger.
They forget Hunter’s fast life ended up catching up to him. Wheelchair bound, in constant pain, the same man who craved speed above all else became painfully aware everything he loved was dripping away. Though he owned innumerable pistols he ended up grabbing a shotgun, killing himself as Hemingway had many years before.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t understand. If not understand, at least sympathize.
Hunter visited Hemingway’s grave when he was still a roving correspondent, still youthful and trying to find his voice. He noted Hemingway had somehow become lost in the modern world, unable to deal with a reality of shifting greys and questionable moral choices. Hunter had no such trouble. Even right before his death he railed against the American War Machine, spit venom at our acceptance of torture, and refused to tread lightly while everyone else bowed reverently to a flag. He still saw the greater picture, the greater meaning behind things all the way to the end, and refused to allow his readers to look away.
Hunter once wrote that there was “not much evidence in history of either God or Justice. The best we can hope for is Truth.”
If his writing has taught me anything it’s that sometimes…sometimes that’s enough. And for that I will always, always be thankful.