October 27, 2007KR BlogReading

“Dealing With a Classic of Irresponsible Gibberish,” or What Do We Do With Hunter S. Thompson?

This piece is the work of author W. David Hall–TM

Because we Americans love to pinpoint the exact day, hour, and minute that we become awash in the wake of a National Tragedy, and because I’d like to add my own “oral history” of Hunter S. Thompson to the soon-to-be-released “Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson,” here’s my take upon hearing that Thompson had taken his own life on February 21, 2005:

Shit. This can’t be right.

I was standing in front of the USA Today rack perched near the cafeteria at Columbus State Community College, where I do my full-time teaching gig. I had been up since 5 am, working on a short story and fighting off a low-level depression from teaching basic writing skills the same way for way too long, and there I was, three hours later, with Starbucks in hand, squinting through a little plastic window at the garish front page. I froze when I saw Thompson’s trademark deer-caught-in-a-drug-raid, slack-jawed expression. He seemed just as surprised to be on the front page of a national newspaper as I was to see him there.

Shit. This can’t be right.

I had turned 40 just a week before and played hooky on my birthday, watching Where The Buffalo Roam, Bill Murray’s take on Thompson. At forty, it felt like a good idea to reconnect with the Spirit of Thompson. Even now I need my heroes, and it was good to know that he was still alive. One week later, Thompson was dead. And not just any kind of dead. Suicide dead. What was I supposed to do with that?

Thompson, for me, had grown into a social thing, his writing to be read and passed around, his exploits to be shared, but there was no one to share this with immediately. My colleagues were too buried in grading papers and designing lesson plans and grammar worksheets and compiling student folders and posting department meeting reminders and talking about the previous night’s episodes of Desperate Housewives and Survivor to give much of a damn about anything literary. At best, I got “I heard about that” and a shrug. At my office, I jumped to Yahoo to get a more complete report. According to their accounts, Thompson’s son Juan had been home at the time of the shooting. Beyond that, there wasn’t anything you couldn’t find on a book jacket. Wrote for Rolling Stone. Founded “gonzo” journalism. Ate drugs like M&Ms. Holed up in a fortified compound in Woody Creek, Colorado, in his declining years. I was disappointed and frustrated. Wasn’t he more than the sum of the strange and weird parts that constituted his life? The Starbucks still hadn’t mustered my focus and my own teaching work was starting to beckon. So I called my wife, in part to tell her, in part to wake her up. I knew what she would say, but I had to tell her anyway. Everyone needed to know.

“Hunter Thompson killed himself yesterday. He was 67.”

“Who?” She’s usually groggy at this hour, but there was another level of unawareness in her voice. Then recognition. “Oh, him.” Then silence.

“I knew I wouldn’t get any sympathy. He’s just“” I retreated into what I always say when she sneers at my self-destructive, bad-boy heroes. “I know, I know. But he was my hero.”

Surprising lucid, she said exactly what I didn’t need to hear at 8:35 am, on a Monday, no less, as the burden of this suicide mated with the dread of teaching the glories of the compound sentence to students who couldn’t care any less: “I’m sorry for you, but I think it’s disgusting that hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of people followed a man like that. It’s simply disgusting.”

Not much of a morning person, my wife.

Twenty minutes, later, I moved to my first class, tried to explain things to my students.

“I’m having a hard morning,” I said as I rolled the overhead projector to the front of the room.

Every now and again, I doubt my choice of taking a straight job in teaching instead of sticking it out in journalism. My doubt was huge that day. Any other time, I could at least flawlessly feign excitement for the fine art of connecting two independent clauses with a comma, followed by a coordinating conjunction; a solo semicolon; or a semicolon followed by an adverbial conjunction followed by a comma. But not that day. It didn’t help that we were in the middle of a never-ending Ohio winter (as though there is any other kind), with “daylight” and “nighttime” little more than variations on a spectrum of grays. It didn’t help that attendance bottomed out, with students scattering like insurgents, regrouping everywhere but in my classroom. It didn’t help that Thompson was gone and they hadn’t known he had even been here in the first place.

I tried again. “Hunter Thompson. Founder of gonzo journalism. Hell of a writer. Taught me all kinds of things.” Their response was a roar of blank stares. I wasn’t surprised. These were developmental education students, the denizens of Ohio’s higher education underworld. If it weren’t for some now-ancient civil rights legislation forcing the State of Ohio to open admissions at two-year, state-funded colleges, the now-recent business model transmuting the love of learning into the love of money, and the always-present, holier-than-thou, normal people-don’t get-anywhere-near-our-ivory-towers attitude of The Ohio State University, my classroom would have been empty and the welfare rolls would have been even more bloated. But these were the people who decided to apply for citizenship in the land of Academia, and, as is the experience of all those migrating to this way of life, Standard English was the first barrier. Otherwise, they would have already read or written themselves well past the placement scores that brought them into my classroom. Like I said, I was slightly depressed but not surprised. But someone finally piped up with, “Yeah, I heard about that, some writer guy blew his brains out in Colorado.” The husky, world-weary voice belonged to Valerie A. (names have been changed, due to my faltering memory), who looked years younger than 25 and was one of the brighter lights in the class. I always suspected she knew more than she let on.

With that bit of encouragement, I said to hell with the grammar lesson, these folks need to hear about a real writing education, and I launched into journalism war stories with tales of Chris C. and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 and how much you can really learn about writing from reading. (Chris had been one of those people I had befriended years ago, but couldn’t, for the life of me, construct any kind of real memory with. He had just been there during high school and college, long, stringy Night Ranger-inspired hair, addict-thin arms and legs, cigarette constantly dangling from his lips. He was the first person I knew who had used drugs–uppers, downers, ???luudes, pot–and read with any serious conviction. He had kept the real dope to himself ((which was fine with me because, to be honest, I was too straight for them anyway)), but he did share his library freely and frequently. In amongst his sci-fi collection and Woodward and Bernstein’s All The President’s Men was a tome by Thompson.

“You have got to read this, man.” He thrust the book into my hands.

“This” was The Great Shark Hunt.

Five inches thick, its pages wrapped in a warped spine and an acidic, old newsprint, stolen from the public library smell, with only the words The Great Shark Hunt in grand flourish and Thompson’s balding head and filtered cigarette in an Annie Leibovitz portrait peering through the cellophane on the cover, it was the one book that challenged my reporter’s education. Gone were accurate quotes, attributions, the all-important lead, the early-morning-read-it-around-the-breakfast-table politeness of straight journalism. Most of it zoomed past my head with a velocity of the speed he always talked about because I hadn’t encountered this kind of freedom before. Thompson was doing whatever needed to be done, saying whatever needed to be said, to get to the Truth. And his brand of journalism opened mine up. From reading him, I learned what journalism could be and set out to make my own writing as strong.

I screamed this philosophy from Day One of class, explaining that I don’t much care what my students read as long as they are reading at least 20 minutes a day. I laughed at my intensity during those lectures, knowing full well that real reading, the kind that teaches you the craft of writing, takes years. We used to call it an apprenticeship, but since Donald Trump has made a mockery of that whole idea, it has fallen out of favor. Instead, now, this idea of reading and writing for my students takes on a fad diet approach, as does a lot of their education these days: just squeeze 20 minutes of reading into every day and, by the end of a 10 week quarter, you’ll write just like those who have been reading and writing forever. That quarter, I supplemented required class work with selections of The Odyssey, but then regretted that I didn’t have the guts to use something that would really speak to them, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, perhaps, or even Thompson’s later ESPN.com columns. I tried to rectify that situation at that moment, tried to explain that Thompson was all about the experience of the underbelly of whatever world he inhabited. He spoke for the feared and the disrespected. On some level, he spoke for them.

But I digress.)

Back to that moment in the classroom, I had gotten worked up to a fever pitch, as I always do when I throw them something they should know. “He changed my writing. He was my hero. We all should have heroes.” At this idea, they reacted as though I was wearing a dynamite vest and speaking Arabic. The concept of “hero”–here defined as someone who influences your life’s work–is as foreign to them as subject/verb agreement. They just don’t have the concept or see any importance in it. Which is not to say that they don’t look up to some people. In that sense, they have people they emulate but no real heroes, no one who affects them fundamentally. Their first major writing assignment in my class is an essay about ancestors. I’m fast and loose with the term, letting it represent anyone who has had an impact on their lives. Once the obligatory family members are taken out of the equation, all of the lists look pretty much the same. Rap martyrs Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. rate high. They represent the New Black Nobility’s scam of shouting long and loud about the ills of the gangsta lifestyle but never walking away from it. Their popularity is high, but the impact is minimal at best. No reason to pin any kind of dream on someone who’s bound to go out in a body bag, thug style. The multi-millionaire, all-American sports stars are next. Thanks to ESPN et al and ad nausea, there is a game on every second, especially basketball, which seems to have an 11-month season, and black folks are always watching, dressing in team colors, and quoting chapter and verse of stats and trades season after season, holding court on the courts. During Black History Month, Martin Luther King, Jr. (as a matter of course) and Malcolm X (as a matter of reluctance) hit almost every list, even for the white kids. Even if we take “hero” to its ultimate height–religious figures like Jesus Christ–nothing really changes. Their idea of hero is someone to look like, walk like, talk like–but the influence ends there.

So, for the rest of our class time, I wanted to throw the Gospels, The Great Shark Hunt, Martin and Malcolm’s speeches at them, scream “Follow the Truth” like a crazed banshee, cast them all into the fires of Real Education, and allow them re-entry into Academia only after they have learned something real from their so-called heroes. But within that thirty seconds, something became quite clear: Heroes only belong to those who can afford to dream. Dreaming costs anonymity. Anonymity is part and parcel of their American Dream. And who can blame these students for that pursuit? Who, after all, doesn’t want to be like everybody else?

Thompson didn’t.

And that was something else he taught me: Conformity ain’t all its cracked up to be.

At the end of that day, I started writing that obituary of Hunter S. and stopped about two months later. The piece wasn’t too far from what you are reading now and it wasn’t half bad. There was talk about addiction–mine to phone sex (short lived), his to everything else (a lifetime pursuit). There was a short recap about my mother’s own suicide attempt that I had just come to terms with recently. There was the Columbus Dispatch’s nearly incoherent “appreciation” piece about Thompson reprinted in its entirety, the way Thompson may have, perhaps, put it in one of his works. My obit started off with one of his quotes from Hell’s Angels–“I feel like I might as well be sitting up here carving the words for my own tombstone“”–and moved along in a mad fever, the pages zooming by like a red Corvette, top down and bats in hot pursuit, burning across an open Nevada desert. Meaning and admiration for the man and his impact on my work filled byte after byte of my hard drive. But then the fever broke. The essay just“stopped, came up short. I had drawn meaning from his life, but I hadn’t drawn any meaning from his death. And isn’t that the purpose of a eulogy, to get us, the living, to see meaning in the dead we honor?

What I had found in Thompson in those early days was a champion, but now, here at forty, with two children, a wife, a mortgage, and a job that taxes me daily, what I had found in Thompson was, yet again, something else. In that first version of the piece, in a rushed ending written that night, I called the man a coward. I still have the line tucked away in another file: “Yes. Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, “gonzo” journalist, drug survivor extraordinaire, and one of the best journalists to sit at an Underwood, was, in the end, a coward. A fucking, yellow-bellied coward.”

But what did I know? I was speaking out of anger, naivet??, and blind ignorance. He was my hero, his writing helped create mine, but he wasn’t going to be around forever. He was going to destroy himself. According to his running buddy, British illustrator Ralph Steadman:

“he told me 25 years ago that he would feel trapped if he didn’t know that he could commit suicide at any moment. I don’t know if that is brave or stupid or what, but it was inevitable. I think that the truth of what rings through all his writing is that he meant what he said. If that is entertainment to you, well, that’s OK. If you think that it enlightened you, well, that’s even better. If you wonder if he’s gone to Heaven or Hell–rest assured he will check out them both, find out which one Richard Milhous Nixon went to–and go there. He could never stand being bored. But there must be Football too–and Peacocks.

Nixon, football, peacocks, suicide, ignorance, and letdown are never easy to deal with and I had fumbled the emotional balance of that essay spectacularly. But, in the end, one can always find reflection, revision, and another file, and, perhaps, a more fitting ending to Hunter S. Thompson’s obituary:

My youngest son has staggered downstairs with a new Lego set in his arms. He interrupts me by telling me what each creation does. If I had any deeper thoughts on Mr. Thompson, they have all dissipated. Which is just as well, because I think this whole ending was starting to slide down the tubes anyway. I will say this much before I close up shop and click the printer icon: Thompson taught me to ride out the storm, pray for mercy, climb into the Red Shark’s driver’s seat one more time, hit the keyboard full out, typing sanity that just might restore some balance to my small corner of the world. He taught me that we’ll survive this mess somehow, overcome the oppression, bury the ugliness and the bastards who created it. He taught me that we don’t have a choice but to let our anger do battle. Checking out early, though, is where I draw the line. There’s too much fighting to do.

I am, after all, a professional–

Rest In Peace, HST.

W. David Hall is the Director of the Kenyon Review Young Writers Program.

About the Program

The Kenyon Review Associates Program provides Kenyon students with valuable experience in literary editing, publishing, and programming. KR Associates work closely with Kenyon Review staff, gaining valuable experience in a number of editing, publishing, and programming areas including manuscript evaluation, publicity and marketing, copy editing, developing web site and social media content, outreach programming, event planning and promotion, and other creative and editorial projects

KR Associates attend regular seminars conducted by Kenyon Review editorial staff, visiting readers, and publishing industry professionals. These seminars cover a wide range of topics including editorial philosophy, evaluation of submissions, print and electronic production, marketing, and design.

KR Associates enjoy also enjoy exclusive access to visiting writers and speakers, free issues of The Kenyon Review, and valuable work experience and employment references.

This program is made possible through an initiative of the Kenyon Review, part of the mission of which is to contribute to the enrichment of the academic, cultural, and artistic life of the Kenyon College community.

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  • Submission Evaluation: All Associates are required to read and evaluate eight Kenyon Review submissions per week. Associates who are not able to complete their weekly submission assignments for more than two weeks in a row may not be allowed to continue in the program.
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The application deadline for the 2023-24 program has passed. Applications for the 2024-25 program will open in the fall of 2024. Please check back then for more details.

Questions? Please contact Tory Weber for more information.