Ed Driscoll

Not Too Surprising: Dr. Gonzo Pulls The Trigger

I just saw the headline on Drudge that Hunter S. Thompson blew his own brains–or what was left of them–out.

Gee, what a shocker.

No doubt, some of Thompson’s early stuff was great, such as his Hell’s Angels book. Tom Wolfe hailed him as one of the great new journalists in the early 1970s, and even prior to that, Thompson’s rise to journalistic superstardom had already begun, thanks to his impeccable timing: a generation exploring pharmaceutical substances–in other words, popping drugs like they were jelly beans–needed a journalist with similar habits to iconify, and Thompson was only too happy to play the part.

Like William S. Burroughs, all that drug consumption eventually caught up with him of course, but not before he turned into a parody of himself. Sadly, with the exception of Wolfe himself, Gay Talese and possibly Michael Herr, time has not been kind to a lot of the heroes of the 1960s and ’70s New Journalism period–they’ve really become parodies of their former selves: in addition to Thompson, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, and Jimmy Breslin all immediately come to mind.

Thomson’s last years were spent churning out sports-related pieces for ESPN’s Page Two section, and one of his pieces in May of 2004 had this classic example of moral equivalence and in a way, Holocaust denial in it, which Matt Drudge linked to (I think Drudge was certainly a fan of Dr. Gonzo–he linked to his column and highlighted it fairly regularly):

The long-dreaded 2004 Olympics in Greece will be the ultimate crossroads for sports and politics in this new and vicious century. The recent photos of cruelty at the Abu Grahaib all-american prison in Baghdad have taken care of that.

Yes, sir. We have taken the bull by the horns on this one, sports fans. These horrifying digital snapshots of the American dream in action on foreign soil are worse than anything even I could have expected. I have been in this business a long time and I have seen many staggering things, but this one is over the line. Now I am really ashamed to carry an American passport. Not even the foulest atrocities of Adolf Hitler ever shocked me so badly as these photographs did.

ESPN eventually edited the piece to remove that last line–but you’d think their editor would have been smart enough to protect Thompson from making a fool of himself in the first place. Who knows–it might have simply been that Thompson’s column wasn’t drawing much traffic by then, and/or Thompson’s editor never thought anybody would notice the line. Or he’d edited one of Dr. Gonzo’s pieces once before only to get a half hour harangue from Thompson for changing his words and figured, “Screw that–I’m just pasting ’em in from now on. I don’t care how bad the guy sounds; they don’t pay me enough to put up with this.”

Like the even more drug-addled Burroughs, Thompson eventually become more famous for who he was than the material he was churning out. He’ll be remembered for his early works, but his life should be a warning that heavy drug and booze consumption eventually takes its toll.

Update: James Lileks’ take seems to be in agreement with mine, right down to mentioning Hell’s Angels as a Gonzo touchstone, which makes me think I wasn’t too far wrong with my initial, very off the cuff remarks. For more Blogospheric reaction to Thompson’s death, follow the links at Memeorandum.