In February 2005, I was an intern at the NBC News Bureau in London. My job was to watch news wire footage come in from Europe, then describe the images into the bureau's daily log. There'd be pictures of bombings in the Middle East and plenty of footage from outside Pope John Paul's hospital. Then on one particularly cold day, images came in over the wire of Hunter S. Thompson. It was stock footage of the media following him down a sidewalk while he chomped his trademark cigarette holder. Then he paused, took off his jacket, did a somersault, picked up his jacket again and kept walking. I had to check the footage report to see why the images of Thompson were coming in and there it was: Hunter S. Thompson was dead in Colorado due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 67.
Like most Midwestern college students, I wasn't encouraged to read Hunter S. Thompson in high school (something about making drugs look too fun.) So I discovered him through the guys who already had several of Thompson's books, as well as "Gonzo fist" tattoos and their own cigarette holders. Sometimes these guys would get drunk and start stammering and yelling the way that Thompson did. And of course, they would always get high on whatever and write class papers in Thompson's style, often forgetting to edit them properly and earning an average grade. But I guess that is the mark of a truly great writer -- when your style gets replicated by other young writers, it means you've done something right.
The usual introduction to Thompson would be through Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his classic, that famously started as a story on a motorcycle race for Sports Illustrated and ended up being a manuscript on the "search for the American dream." The copy I read was paperback, and the book's opening line immediately hit home. "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold," has become as iconic as "Call me Ishmael," or "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," for new generations. But Thompson did more than just do drugs in the book, he wrote elegantly about how Las Vegas in 1971 embodied an epitaph for the counterculture movements of the 1960s: "San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of... We were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave... Less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark - that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."
After reading the book, if you hadn't already seen it, you'd have to watch the 1998 Terry Gilliam film version, which would naturally lead you to read more Thompson. The Rum Diary was usually next, especially since Thompson started writing it when he was a 22-year-old reporter in Puerto Rico. In The Rum Diary, Thompson wrote about witnessing the expansion of U.S. imperialism: "I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along a senseless odyssey.... I was being paid twenty-five dollars a day to ruin the only place I'd seen in ten years where I'd felt a sense of peace. Paid to piss in my own bed, as it were, and I was only here because I'd got drunk and been arrested and had thereby become a pawn in some high-level face-saving bullshit."
Thompson's last book, Kingdom of Fear, was about the growing police presence in America after 9/11, and he considered it a warning for the future: "I like this book, and I especially like the title, which pretty well sums up the foul nature of life in the U.S.A. in these first few bloody years of the post-American century... The real power in America is held by a fast emerging new Oligarchy of pimps and preachers who see no need for Democracy or fairness or even trees..." Thompson's warning continued throughout, as the book also included his famous ESPN column from September 11, 2001: "The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for Peace in Our Time, in the United States or any other country. Make no mistake about it: We are At War now -- with somebody -- and we will stay At War with the mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives."
In 2011, while I was studying at Columbia's School of Journalism, the The Rum Diary was turned into a film and screened at the school for a tribute to Thompson. Johnny Depp attended and told a story about Hunter clearing a path in an Aspen bar with a tazer and a cattle prod. The film's director Bruce Robinson was too drunk to make sense. Me and my buddy were on some mescaline that he got in Colorado. I remember loving the movie and everyone else hating it, but I guess Thompson's style wasn't something that could always be replicated, on film or in writing. The difference between Thompson and the wannabes who followed is that he actually lived the American history he wrote about. And while he called it "Gonzo journalism," he really immortalized his experiences from those times into beautiful, drug/alcohol/fear-fueled prose. You can practically hear Thompson in your head while you read, shouting, "Keep reading, you awful bastard!" No author would have ever yelled that before, and none will do so the same way again.