TCS Daily

Thompson, What Am I Going to Do With You?

By Jackson Kuhl - February 24, 2005 12:00 AM

I sat around a lot in airports during the summer of 1998. The previous fall, I had become involved in an internet-related project which had begun in my native state of Connecticut. When the project moved to Houston in the spring, I went with it. For ten weeks I lived in a Holiday Inn across the street from the Johnson Space Center, plunging my air-conditioned rental car 80 miles an hour down heat-blasted six-lane boulevards, racing between air-conditioned hotel room and air-conditioned office. On most Fridays I would fly home to my newlywed wife, then back again Monday morning. The company paid for it all.

Sitting at the gates, waiting to board, I read Hunter S. Thompson. Years previous, I had read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and, like a lot of people, I had a good laugh and returned it to the bookshelf. Then at some point I picked up a copy of The Proud Highway, the first volume of Thompson's collected letters. I'm not even sure how I came to possess the book or why; but I've always been a fan of writers' correspondence: Raymond Chandler's, Robert E. Howard's, Kerouac's. I probably picked it off a table at Barnes & Noble.


The Proud Highway spans between 1955 and 1967, beginning with essays Thompson wrote in high school and ending with the denouement of the success of Hell's Angels. It is the unintentional autobiography of a purposeful young man who typed out Hemingway to teach himself the timbre of Papa's punching keys. It was refreshing to read, for once, a cynic who lacked those fingernails down the blackboard, the phony world-weariness affected by every man, woman, and child in modern print. Thompson exuded self-control when clearly surrounded by anything but (the sunglasses were part of that, like a poker player); he seemed to be born a sea captain in a maelstrom. Thompson could always be surprised (two of his last predictions were that Kerry would win the election and the Colts would face the Eagles in the Superbowl -- Lord, how that man could be wrong) but he could deal with it without the Geraldo Rivera bravado that consumes contemporary journalism. It was bracing.


Some of Thompson's trials reverberated with my own. Thompson very badly wanted to be a fiction writer, a desire which I believe stuck to his dying day -- even while young he worried that he would be remembered for his nonfiction. In his early twenties, he wrote and submitted short stories to magazines, unsuccessfully. Me too. Thompson was a misanthrope afflicted with the obsessive-compulsion to write, which, after all, is a form of communication, requiring human contact. Me too. He was prone to threatening people with bodily harm. Me too. He was a loyal and honorable friend. I'm a mean-spirited jackass.


When I began working on the internet project, I was strictly client-side -- it was glorified technical editing. But as time passed and the more senior consultants dropped away, off to pursue less mind-numbing endeavors, I migrated into server country, through the looking glass into databases and MySQL and security loopholes big enough to drive my Hertz Grand Am through (late one Thursday night, I accidentally deleted half the project and had to have the server administrator restore it from backup tapes). By late August, I was clawing at my throat to escape. The Houstonians looked to me -- me! -- to make things work when they didn't. My career stood like a deep-sea diver on the edge of a continental shelf, a single fin stroke keeping me from being merely out of my depth and ending up alongside a kraken in some sperm whale's belly.


If I were to continue any farther, I said to myself sitting in an airport, I needed formal training. I needed to go back to school. But I also knew it was a lost cause. I had no love for computers or networks -- I had gotten into it for the money -- and so I knew I'd never be better than mediocre.

Give me time and I would be wiping servers clean across America.


Texas and Thompson concocted a martini in my head in the summer of 1998. I bought pepper spray; I wore Army surplus cargo pants with Beatle boots; I inhaled six-packs of Shiner in my hotel room that I kept iced in a trash can while I was at work; I abused rental cars like an escaped felon. And I realized, just as Thompson wrote in 1959, that there were no two ways about it: "I am going to be a writer. I'm not even sure that I'm going to be a good one or even a self-supporting one." I had to be a writer, just as a priest is called to his collar, out of sheer necessity: it was the only thing I had aptitude for.


Hunter S. Thompson will be remembered for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He will be remembered as the sire of "gonzo:" for the bucket hat and the cigarette holder. I wish it wasn't that way. I wish instead he would be remembered for Hell's Angels, a piece of anthropology more insightful than anything Margaret Mead produced. I wish he were remembered not for the guns but for the peacocks he bred and sold to Alaskan golf courses. Over everything, I wish he were remembered for the cracks in the gonzo, for the cloud breaks of lucidity in all the craziness. Because that's the real reason I admired him and why I read practically everything he wrote while sitting in some airport somewhere: Hunter S. Thompson was brilliant. It was his well-read brain and not the intoxicants with which he spliced together the wonderful analogies that he did -- it was why he was able to fashion destinations for his trains of thought. Pick up any of his stuff and he's going off, snarling at somebody, driving some machine to ruin, blabbering about conspiracies and people snorting cocaine from human skulls and then, like a rollercoaster pausing on the crest of a long drop, he'll make a very real and quiet point about why the NFL is just like national politics which is just like bad hotel service. And then the coaster finally tips and pitches back again into fury and steel.


I never took the drugs and alcohol seriously after The Proud Highway. It's not that they were there -- oh, they were there -- but I knew they were part of his self-deprecation, his saying, I'm so firmly in control here I can do whatever I like. It was the essence of inebriation that he fixed so securely to the page: the sensory overload pierced by sparkling Caribbean islands of epiphany and understanding that the rest of us forget thirty seconds later. Thompson didn't lose them. He could chart the entire experience.


That's why I wanted to be a journo, or a freelancer, or whatever you want to call me now. Leave the gonzo to his other fans; I wanted the moments in-between. If I could capture those -- well, if I could capture those.


By Thanksgiving 1998, I had already met with some success in my new trajectory. I often thought about writing Thompson a letter thanking him -- the first time in my life I had ever felt the desire to contact a celebrity.


It would be like the cheeky epistles he wrote to William Faulkner and Norman Mailer. I imagined maybe he would scribble a note back, and I could keep it in my desk drawer. But I figured he got stacks of mail daily from fans around the world, frothing at the mouth and keeping him from his work, every one of them -- like me -- demanding that he recognize them, that he spread some of his luminescence upon them by acknowledging both parties existed on the same planet. I felt silly and childish, and so I never did anything.


From what I gather, Thompson was not in the best of shape. Broken leg, hip replacement, back surgery; he was reported to be in a lot of pain -- and you have to wonder what kind of pain can penetrate the fog of Chivas Regal and Wild Turkey.


That doesn't make me any less angry. Thompson was to his bones a southern gentleman. He would growl but he was said never to be impolite without cause. I've read that he would kick people out of his house if they spoke out of turn or abused his hospitality -- Owl Farm was his Algonquin Round Table, not Coyote Ugly. But what he did Sunday night was disgraceful. It was rude, Thompson, it was rude and ungracious and discourteous. You let your only child find your corpse and you did it while your six-year-old grandson was in the house. Jesus.


But that's enough of that. The last thing Thompson's family and friends need right now is some total stranger yelling at the old man. They've got plenty of yelling of their own.


I cant decide if it was a terminal act of ultimate control or an admission that all along he never had any. Now I'm left with the Thompson of 1998, the Thompson in my head, and I need to figure out where to put him. I will read the papers to learn the wishes of the family. I'll send flowers to the funeral home or make a donation to whatever charity they ask me to. This afternoon I took my toddler to the toy store and let him get whatever he wanted. I don't know what else to do.



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