Dr. Thompson

thompsonFROM THE ARCHIVES: In any event, in the days immediately following Thompson’s death, various members of the PlaybackSTL staff meditated on his legacy on our nonpublic Yahoo! Groups forum. Columnist and career gadfly Byron Kerman, for instance, touted Thompson as a singular stylist; book editor Stephen Schenkenberg, meanwhile, reported that he had just reread passages of Thompson’s work sans epiphany.


Sunday, February 20, when trailblazing journalist Hunter S. Thompson shot himself at his Owl Ranch home in rural Woody Creek, Colorado, I was wrestling a deadline for this Web site, ludicrously self-sequestered in an effort to communicate. As a result, news of his suicide didn’t reach me till the next morning, when I logged onto one of my e-mail accounts to find awaiting me glum messages from my friend Bryan Reeves and my friend and fellow PlaybackSTL editor Kevin Renick. Although presumably and understandably Thompson’s family and friends faced the day from a far more dismal prospect, I thus started that Monday in a bleak mood indeed.

Inasmuch as it involves a measure of irony, that admission demands an explanation. Lock, stock, and barrel, I stole the name of this department from Thompson in his “Raoul Duke” guise. I did so even though (a) Thompson rarely concerned himself with musical matters and (b) rhetorically, unlike John Clute, Pauline Kael, Greil Marcus, and Tom Wolfe, he never numbered among the main inspirations behind the antics hereunder loosed on unsuspecting netizens. Nevertheless, the homage of the department’s name seemed mandatory, inasmuch as Thompson and Wolfe double-handedly revolutionized journalism in a way not even Ernest Hemingway, one of Thompson’s own main inspirations, could have during his turn as a reporter in Kansas City and elsewhere.

As an aside, that homage has spawned confusion with dreadful regularity since the department’s inception. “Sports? You?” snorted my brother, Brad. Like our parents and our sister, Tracy, he well knows that—unlike Thompson in specific and the monkeymass of male Americans in general—I feel no fascination whatsoever for athletics. (Bowling I genuinely enjoy, and anything involving cheerleaders interests me—but only insofar as it involves cheerleaders alone.) As a result, from time to time during the past two-plus years, I’ve had to explain the Raoul Duke nod to interlocutors, sometimes, as a lagniappe, even daring to hint that the noun sport has definitions involving something beyond athletes. (The Moral of the Story: Gonzo only looks easy.)

In any event, in the days immediately following Thompson’s death, various members of the PlaybackSTL staff meditated on his legacy on our nonpublic Yahoo! Groups forum. Columnist and career gadfly Byron Kerman, for instance, touted Thompson as a singular stylist; book editor Stephen Schenkenberg, meanwhile, reported that he had just reread passages of Thompson’s work sans epiphany. On reflection, perversely, I agreed with both Steve and Byron. On one hand, as Steve suggested, Thompson rarely flirted with the belletristic tendencies of Wolfe; his mythos to the contrary notwithstanding, the sage of Owl Ranch remained a newspaperman to the end of his days, and omnium-gatherums like The Great Shark Hunt define the degree to which deadlines forced him to repeat himself, sometimes to the point of auto-plagiarism. On the other hand, as Byron submitted, Thompson inarguably transmogrified modern print reportage, spiking the punchbowl at the AP/UPI cotillion and, for one brief, shining moment, demonstrating that journalists needn’t and oughtn’t succumb to the dress-for-success tendencies rotting this world.

Given its feral nature, in all likelihood, Thompson’s work will always spark such variegated reactions, less inviting than demanding personal responses hilariously at odds with the depersonalized modus operandi of modern corporate journalism—instead of Charmin, he probably stocked his bathroom with copies of The Associated Press Stylebook. Early in the ’80s but embarrassingly late in the game, I myself first encountered Thompson’s work as an undergrad at Southeast Missouri State U in Cape Girardeau. There each week, I tramped something like a dozen blocks from my dorm to a firetrap bookseller named the Metro News, where one fine day I bought mass-market paperbacks of both Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Hell’s Angels. To this day, those two volumes remain in my collection. The former, a Popular Library edition costing $1.95 and boasting an orange-and-yellow, splotches-and-hairlines Ralph Steadman illo on its front cover, bore a blurb from Women’s Wear Daily, of all sources, and struck me as latter-day literary contraband at the time. For any number of reasons, it still does.

Although the opening of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas had been quoted ad infinitum even before Thompson’s suicide, infinity (with appropriately infinite lenience) will forgive its re-presentation here: “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” As a gambit in the great game between writer and reader, that sentence still radiates a subtle, seductive power worthy of a much earlier hook: “You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,’ but that ain’t no matter.” With characteristic audacity, of course, the freakazoid pharaoh of fear and loathing topped even the favorite son of Hannibal, Missouri, who merely transformed Samuel Langhorne Clemens into Mark Twain. Thompson, in contrast, dispensed with the intermediary and became his own Huckleberry Finn, forever rafting down a Mississippi of improbability.

Even to someone more enamored of Wolfean mannerism, the long, lean Louisville native compelled attention and perhaps far more as one of the chief cardiologists lasing the heart of darkness of the past four or five decades. As a result, a year or so ago, I started drafting something like a Thompson pastiche involving a road trip, a convention, and even a legal companion—albeit not one of Samoan heritage—under the title “Not Just Any Port in a Storm ~ or ~ Fear and Loathing in Cape Girardeau.” Time fast passed, however, and subsequent events undermined the point of that projected piece. Nevertheless, the pack-rat proclivities of the writer prevented me from deleting that file from my laptop. In consequence, a few details therefrom augmented a dispatch from the Sports Desk uploaded to this Web site last autumn. Also in consequence, between the two rows of asterisks following, I can present the opening of that draft:

* * * * *

“Ah jist cain’t b’lieve they’re trynna steal mah socks,” declared the pudgy 11-year-old with volume enough to suggest that she intended everyone to second her reaction.

The moment struck me as emblematic. Disbelief colored a number of things there and then, in Cape Girardeau on Good Friday, and almost inevitably, a degree of improbability lingers in this account, which represents one of those periodic dispatches from the Sports Desk that only putatively concern music, seemingly go nowhere, and take their time arriving. As ever, caveat lector.

Now, the preceding reference to Cape Girardeau almost demands an initial geographic digression for those St. Louisans who regard anything nearer the equator than Lindbergh Boulevard as fearsome terra incognita demanding several native guides, a well-oiled personal armory, and both the fortitude and fortune of Allan Quatermain. To wit, the Cape lies roughly 120 miles south of the Lou along the Mississippi River. According to the 2000 census, it has a population of 35,349, approximately a tenth of St. Louis’s. As a result, even though it was incorporated in 1793—more than a decade and a half before Mound City—the Cape has remained, in the main, almost resolutely bucolic.

After a layover at the family farm in Ste. Genevieve, I’d jaunted south to the Cape at the behest of my old friend Sondra Fitzpatrick. Like me, Sondra had once done time as a graduate assistant in SEMO’s Department of English; in Academic Hall, her name graces a bronze plaque honoring those who have graduated with a GPA of 4.0, while my own name appears on the university’s database beside the notation “Deceased”—another tale entirely. Nowadays, Sondra practices law in the hamlet of Herrin, Illinois. During the weeks preceding Easter, she’d e-mailed and phoned me several times. “Let’s rendezvous in Cape,” she basically implored. “Come and amuse me.” That she has long considered me a diversion, obviously, testifies to how easily Sondra’s amused or how badly the Herrin public library needs an infusion of true-crime books, her favorite reading material of late. Still, I could never resist a damsel in distress.

That atavistic tendency toward chivalry had sent me southward early that afternoon, zipping past semis and keeping mindful of the traditional I-55 speed traps in Perry County and at Fruitland/Jackson. The sun was blazing from a cloudless cerulean sky, and the mercury was rising into the 70s—a fine day for a drive. My destination was approaching, I knew, when all of the presets on the ZX2’s stereo started to warble and shrill; I scanned for a signal, hoping against hope that local radio hadn’t degenerated in toto into a cesspool of classic rock and right-wing talk shows, and settled on something with a Motown groove.

Sondra and I were staying at perhaps the city’s newest hotel, the five-story Drury Suites, which lies just southwest of the interstate’s intersection with Route K/William. In all of my minor-league Marco Polo moments, Drury operations have never disappointed me; not once in any of them have I ever felt compelled to wedge a chair under the doorknob, as I did years ago during a stay at the Cape’s Sands Motel on Kingshighway.

Be that as it may, in a small synchronicity, all of two minutes after I’d parked the ZX2, Sondra arrived in her Jeep. Something about the prospect of an alluring, auburn-haired lady lawyer in such a vehicle tickled me, but Sondra had already told me she planned to sell it. So it goes. Once we’d greeted each other, I shouldered my musette and hefted Sondra’s largest piece of luggage—women!—and we entered the hotel.

“Did they tell you we have a youth convention staying here this weekend?” asked the young woman staffing the front desk, a brunette improbably named Natasha.

I shot her one of those looks. “What kind of youth convention?”

“Pentecostalists,” Natasha replied, and Sondra and I laughed, pleased it hadn’t involved the Southeast Missouri Skateboard and Paintball Enthusiasts Society.

“Do you think we’ll see anybody writhing on the floor and speaking in tongues?” Sondra mused as we moved to the elevator.

“Dunno,” I said. “I just hope none of ’em are snake-handlers. I don’t do rattlers.”

For the space of five floors, the glass-backed elevator presented an unforeseen complication: Sondra has long suffered from acrophobia, so she studied its doors with preternatural attentiveness.

Our suite, Room 518, offered all of the amenities advertised by Drury—microwave, refrigerator, VCR, and so forth. It overlooked the interstate and an older house with an adjoining one-story barn that looked as if it dated from the ’30s or ’40s. Directly below, vans emblazoned with the phrases Apostolic and Pentecostal swarmed the parking lot like bluebottles on roadkill.

While she engaged in girly-girl preparations for the evening—curling her hair and the like—Sondra sent me for cigarettes and Miller Lite. On that errand, I encountered the aforesaid pint-sized Scarlett O’Hara and two younger boys, who were treating the hotel’s elevators and corridors as extensions of whatever Boot Heel hovel they called home. The urchins’ eyes studied me: a man with a crew cut, mustache, and goatee, wearing a ring on every finger, wire-frame sunglasses, a black linen-blend shirt from which the sleeves had been slashed, black jeans, and black boots. I presumed they belonged to the convention; I presume also that I approximated nothing in their personal experience, in any number of ways. The three of them were still scampering hither and yon when I returned with two boxes of Salems and a 12-pack.

“Wonder if I can pick up a copy of Anton LaVey somewhere,” I muttered to Sondra on re-entering the suite. She ignored me; we’ve known each other almost two decades, and she’s grown adept at doing that.

* * * * *

Past that point, the draft spirals into (at best) sketchiness or (at worst) indecipherability, and I shan’t tax this descendent of the mojo wire by parading notebook pages as finished prose, as Thompson supposedly did to unexpected acclaim with a 1970 piece included in The Great Shark Hunt entitled “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved.” Ego drives me as much as any other writer, but even I bow to the lunatic chutzpah of the man behind Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

To Thompson’s detractors, of course, the outskirts of Barstow likely mark his peak, if such detractors accord him even that consideration, particularly from a political vantage. (At more than double the length of the Vegas tome, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 would take far too much time and effort to scorn, especially given its subject.) Here, as always, individual mileage will vary. As an individual, though, this I know: late last fall, to the November 11 Rolling Stone, whose cover featured a close-up of John Kerry so tragically asthenic as to qualify visually as an endorsement for four years more of the Dick Cheney Revue, Thompson contributed a screed entitled “The Fun-Hogs in the Passing Lane” wherein he dubbed George W. Bush “a treacherous little freak” and “a weak-minded frat boy” and all but predicted a Kerry landslide—and I believed the demented bastard without reservation. Karl Rove wannabes may, of course, snigger at such naiveté. Let them. Let them, moreover, snigger as history garrotes them, as the context if not the actual text of “Fun-Hogs” finally and fearsomely ramifies throughout the land, as the political piper at last demands his pay. On that gloriously dark day, to echo another populist who roared to prominence just before Thompson, a hard rain’s a-gonna fall, and no amount of dime-store right-wing agitprop will suffice as an umbrella.

While awaiting that downpour, how shall we elegize the streetwise hierophant of Woody Creek? A malcontent and a madman, a mountebank and a muckraker nonpareil, Thompson, in his words and deeds, established that true writers, writers who matter, writers who make their mark not merely with style but with abiding substance, observe just two holy duties: to tell the truth with the thunder of the last trump—and, as necessary in service of that truth, to lie like a sumbitch. Aptly or not, any number of canid comparisons present themselves in contemplating his works and days: a mongrel of impeccable pedigree, a lone wolf somehow leading the pack, an avatar of the Native American trickster Coyote perennially equipped with aviator glasses across whose lenses peyote visions were apparently dancing nonstop. A punk and a hustler, a hero and a prophet, a walking, talking paradox, Thompson swaggered onto the stage of late twentieth century America as if he owned the whole deranged theater, and in a way, he did. Precisely the right man in the right place at the right time, good, bad, or indifferent, he ranked as our Mencken, and I do not so much suspect as fear that we will not again soon see his like.

Dr. Thompson's works can be found at your local library, Left Bank Books, or at Powell's, among many locations.

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