Memento Mori

Who was Hunter S. Thompson? To everyone who followed him, he was somebody different. Our writer remembers his reading life with the Good Doctor.

Though the family farm may have been sold a year before, my father was still living in the decrepit old farmhouse with the falling plaster ceilings and warped floorboards, and the books on the night table were the same as always: Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John Gardner’s Grendel, and the glaring orange paperback Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson. It wasn’t a coincidence, then, that the first time I got drunk, around the age 13 on cheap white wine from a big green jug, I commemorated the occasion by reading Hunter for the first time too. The book was insane, confused, desolate, angry, mournful, and about the funniest goddamned thing I’d ever read. In short, the thing was similar to its enraptured reader: a geeky and awkward teenaged boy in an already doomed farmhouse sneaking downstairs to guzzle wine from his father’s jug more from curiosity as any desire for inebriation or escape.

Thompson kept me laughing for years to come. Whether bikers, politicians, or lawyers, his imagination was populated by a depraved circus of shills, hucksters, crazed clowns, snake-oil salesmen, and, at times, wounded or dying martyrs, with America as much a character of his fantasies and revelations as anything else. A Southern boy who always spoke well of his momma, Thompson was familiar with the revival-tent tricks of mountebank preachers, and he often adopted their apocalyptic style for his own writings, especially when ranting against the varied mountebanks’ own hypocritical excesses. No one and nothing was immune from Thompson’s wildman sermons. In his early days he lived out every writer’s dream by firing back irredeemably rude letters to any editor that rejected his work. Later he made his name by riding with the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang and writing about the experience from a non-hysterical perspective. A nice little sidebar to his Hell’s Angels book were the brief yet keen-sighted descriptions of Ken Kesey’s LSD prankster movement, which had little of the annoying bullshit that natty Tom Wolfe would hype in his overblown and repetitive (surprise surprise) Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Nixon was the devil incarnate to Thompson, and his rhetoric against that pernicious influence on American politics could help us all in forming a vocabulary against the current Evil One in the White House. He correctly described the 1980s as a “generation of swine” and told Bill and Hilary Clinton to knock it off with their hairstyle obsessions. Long before the internet Thompson was a technological hoodlum, using the newest and latest fax machines to pester any who caught his wrathful attention (or to demand reimbursement for his notorious expense accounts.) If Thompson would become somewhat of a caricature of himself in his online ESPN columns, well, he’d always made a good cartoon anyway, and though he used to despise it I think later on he’d have admitted at least privately that Garry Trudeau’s Duke character was a fitting doppelganger, yet another sideshow persona popping out of the wings to make us all laugh with their obvious and unrepentant evils.

I don’t know what caused Thompson to kill himself. Truthfully, I’m still stunned at the news. My instincts say it had something to do with the world as it is today. That, or possibly a Hemingway-esque despair that he could no longer write the way that he once could. We’ll find out soon enough, I suppose, and the news will be depressing whatever it is. All I know is that Hunter is dead and I’m bummed and listening to Tom Waits’ Frank’s Wild Years because it seems the only thing fitting to news of Thompson’s suicide: Like the man says, Bring a dollar with you, baby, in the cold, cold ground.

There’s a snowstorm outside and I have to drive to a doctor appointment in an hour or so and I feel like crap and dread the whole thing. It’s been a long time since I snuck down to get drunk, but thoughts of Thompson will keep me company during the drive much the way he did all those years ago. No writer has ever made me laugh out loud the way Hunter S. Thompson did, especially when calling out the ugly ruses used by so many of the cannibalistic clowns in power and politics, and it’s with more than a little loathing and fear that I envision an America without him. The Good Doctor has left us and there won’t be another like him again. Selah.


Tobias Seamon recently published the novella The Fair Grounds. More can be found here. More by Tobias Seamon