Hunter S. Thompson, 1937-2005 | OPINION: Peter Eichenberger | Indy Week
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Hunter S. Thompson, 1937-2005 

My initial response was more "no shit" than "holy shit." Hunter S. Thompson was a sort of a toxic, literary mayfly who burst forth on the scene when conditions were just right, to torment for a short time the falsity of the American picnic. And when his day was over, he joined the parade of the dead, most of whom leave scant traces of their existences save a few letters browned by age, entries in ledgers. He came at the right time, a prickly, disruptive voice harshly demanding the most simple of things--truth. The sixties were all about disrupting the ancien regime in that pursuit. Thompson was one of the decade's true berserkers, the guy tied to the mast who, when released, dove into the fray with studied, furious savagery. There were tea carts to be shoved down the stairs and he was the guy, before they realized he was in the house, to do it. He did what he did in a time that has come and gone, before the iron fist of corporate dominance strangled nearly every avenue for the printed truth.

Courage takes all forms--physical, spiritual, emotional, mental. It is rare enough to find one in a person; it is nearly a once in a lifetime to find one that can handle all of them. And that was exactly what defined Thompson--scrupulous, searing, quirky courage: courage to live, to be himself and to render things as they are instead of how we wish them to be or might have been. Like a ranger, he studied the perimeter, found the vulnerabilities and vaulted the fence with no sense of fear or personal risk.

It is greatly seductive to live inside the lines, to go along with the herd.

There is comfort there, but it comes at a price. The vast bulk of America wakes up and goes to bed, and when they happen to look at the mirror, they see a person and that's all. It is the rare one who looks beyond the photons of reflected light, deeper into motives and how they fit into this fantastic and unpredictable thing that we call this life. A test pilot. Remember, this is an experiment never to be repeated, and it is the rare one's responsibility to test the envelope, mindful of what you encounter--that failure or sudden loss of control that can bring one plummeting to earth.

It is not the realm for simple thrill seekers. Some live like test pilots because they have to--it is a job qualification. 'Cause you know, to secure an accurate view of the world, it is sometimes necessary to view all its sordidness and waste from an elevated vantage point. Sometimes, to really get up there for a look, a little whiff of nitrous oxide might be just what you need.

In a way, for years, I loathed the man, steadfastly refusing to read his stuff. I knew from reputation he'd already stolen my shtick well before I'd gotten my game, such that it is, under way. Oh, I so wanted to be in that convertible, washing pills down with Wild Turkey. The guy who gets to ask the fucked-up questions. Over the years I softened and could only look upon the man with awe--for being himself, for his luck at being at the right place at the right time, and the stones to actually do it, instead of, like so many, passively waiting for life to come to them; tree-standing in effect. Oh, no, Mr. Thompson would have none of that, he was all about gittin' the guns, the dogs, the horses and the booze and doin' some huntin', son. A man's man, almost a caricature. He was dangerous and I like dangerous people. I didn't want to be a wannabe--I wanted to peel his face off.

And here's the paradox: Even as I was avoiding him, if he hadn't done what he did, I couldn't do what I do, nor could anyone else who'd written a field report until Hell's Angels. The jagged shadow that he cast was so profound that even his detractors can only nod their heads ruefully and admit he knocked it out of the park. The ultimate high wire act, conducted with elan and the natural grace of a Kentucky man with a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Hey y'all, watch this.

And brought down in that most Southern of ways.

It's 11:30 and I just cracked a beer. I don't normally drink in the morning and I don't intend on making it a habit. It is uncharacteristic, but it is where my head is. There's that old expression about how you don't miss your water 'til your well runs dry. Now that he is gone, I feel selfish, like the worst playah hatuh who ever lived, that I despised his success at doing what I wanted to do. He couldn't have done what he did at any other time and I couldn't do what I do if he hadn't done what he did, and now he is gone and the only thing I feel is this sense of--loss, but more, pride in the man, pride for him having the cajones to do shit most of us would never even attempt. The last modern man, not of this chilly, postmodern new world of terragigs and e-mail but one of gasoline, cars and drugs and yes, bullets; a world of inertia, gravity and machines amid the credo of the true adventurer--that there is honor dying in pursuit of the fun. You don't know what it is like 'til you do it and then you don't really need to do it again; that is like a well emptying, filling up and when the well is full, what now? If you are in the experience business, when you've done it all, then what? You have to keep some of the child in you or else it is done. That might be one lesson.

It is all different now. All his work, all the ravages he exacted on his own body to shake the shoulders of the fakers and the thieves has been flattened by a system that spews lies like a locomotive. There simply was no place for him and his message of ugly honesty and truth. His work was reportage and reportage has a short shelf life.

So there he was, increasingly hemmed in as the habitat of the sort he recognized grew smaller and smaller, 'til y'know, it might be time to burn the house, collect the nails and strike west.

"Gonzo journalism" lived and died with Hunter S. Thompson. There can never be another one. He was not a cartoon character or a person in a movie. He was a living, breathing, vexing person who was not afraid to live, to blow past convention, past the fear and the neuroses and truly exploit the absurd potential of the predicament we have found ourselves in.

And when it was time to go, it was time to go. As paranoid as I am, as much as I would like to believe the initial dark rumors, it seems the man simply went into another room after the end of a pleasant weekend. Like a book hitting the floor. The click of a primer and that maddened, beautiful brain is silenced.

By an unsurprising means and manner, he is now eternal. He will be forever a part of the full voice of man, an angry one that will not accept anything more than the simplest demand--that of truth, something that is in short supply these days.

What was surprising today is how much he is beginning to mean to me. Like Elvis without the irony.

So. No tears for Mr. Thompson. He wouldn't have wanted it and neither would I if I were in his shoes. Nope. Maybe that is harsh, but I'm sure he'd agree. Hunter S. Thompson is rocketing across the great American West in a Cadillac that will never run out of gas. The world kept turning and that time is gone like a breezy spring day. I'll just have to content myself with being sucked along by his passage and dedicate myself to trying in some small way to ensure that his fierce voice, demanding only what we need to live--honesty--lives.

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