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Death of Dr. Gonzo. . .
(Feb.26, 2005)

        So Hunter Thompson took the Hemingway off-ramp on the One-Way Turnpike.
        There are hurt feelings among old friends, and the hapless "what a waste" and "why'd he do it?" cliches among fans and readers. There are due plaudits from Tom Wolfe, who saliently appraised Thompson as the funniest writer of the 20th century, and from Gay "New Journalism" Talese and "counter-culture" all-star Paul Krassner.
        Thompson was in pain from recent back surgery and hip replacement---and a broken leg suffered in the extreme sport of sexagenarian bar-stool standing-up-and turning-around.
        Pain is more than enough to make anybody check out of the Bloodpump Hilton. I learned this from a bout of kidney stones a few years ago that left me on the floor, unable to move, for hours, musing on wounded soldiers asking to be put out of their misery.
        And chronic pain is simply intolerable, as I learned during a lengthy siege of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and attendant agonies. I wouldn't have resisted the periodic impulse to kill the disease, even if it meant taking the vessel it afflicted, had a gun been handy. (Let's hear it for gun control.)
        Thompson liked guns, though; liked to keep 'em handy. Why, I haven't the slightest idea. Maybe he was shooting at demons when he plinked or blasted with automatic weapons at the many gongs on his Aspen estate. Maybe he was shooting gongs instead of himself. Maybe he just liked to shoot straight. He sure as hell did at the typewriter.
        My guess is that he looked into the future and did not see spring. Did not see himself flaming down I-15 in a Great Red Shark on his way to pry the American Dream loose from lizard-people in Las Vegas, with a dope smorgasbord in the trunk. Did not see much possibility of falling in love, or discovering beauty, or enjoying blasting gongs with an AK-47 again.
       My guess is that he saw only more extreme physical pain and deterioration, which brings us promptly to George W. Bush and the ruination of the country and culture, and quite possibly the world. The horrors to befall the U.S. since Bush was elected in 2000 are the hallucinations of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," realized and triumphant. Thompson saw the rise of the lizard-people, and it seriously creeped him out.
        As he wrote in his final Rolling Stone article last fall:
        "Bush is a natural-born loser with a filthy-rich daddy who pimped his son out to rich oil-mongers. He hates music, football and sex, in no particular order, and he is no fun at all."
        No fun at all. . .
        The article, "Fear and Loathing, Campaign 2004" was plainer and less funny than his past work, but these are plainer and less funny days. There had been a degree of sport in pointing out Nixon's obvious Shakespearian flaws, as Thompson gloriously did in "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 1972," but Nixon was fundamentally pro-environment, and what used to be called a "statesman." Tricky Dick would be utterly aghast at Bush/Cheney's "with us or against us" program of tyranny and outsourced torture; he was a largely rational leader---certainly an internationalist---by contrast.
        Thompson knew this, and accordingly, there was little characteristic exuberance or farce in his denunciation of Bush. Perhaps there was even a bit of desperation about it. After all, he talked himself into heartily supporting---even celebrating---John Kerry in the article, which you figure was no easy trick. 
        So Bush's deliberate dismantling of environmental protection, the exalting of Corporate America, the proposed demise of Social Security, the takeover of the Middle East disguised as "liberating a people," and the perpetuation of this administration by great hordes of terrified Bible-bangers. . . couldn't have buoyed Thompson's spirits.
        What's more, he had a compassionate heart and a journalist's brain, which is a volatile mix. A journalist's brain---at least a good journalist's brain---relentlessly batters its owner with truth, in all its ironic ugliness. It's not easy to see the fraudulence and chicanery in everything, all the time, folks. It's not unrelated to being strapped to a chair and subjected to bright lights and loud rap music 24 hours per day, like they do to the guests at Guantanamo. It takes a toll.
        At 67, Thompson had withstood a lot of torture-by-truth. He had railed at it spectacularly, valiantly, uproariously with hundreds of thousands of words since 1970, when he first burned out on straight writing, and submitted his vitriolic notes in lieu of routine coverage of the Kentucky Derby. ("The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.")
       Thompson's Kentucky Derby catharsis reminds of the famous story of the fried sportswriter who typed "the f---ing horse won the f---ing race" then walked out on his career. Dr. Gonzo instead added to that sentence, and found the writing was good enough to keep fetching a paycheck. Better, actually, than anything he had written before.
       The "gonzo journalism" that resulted became a highly oversold concept; a myth, really. There is no broad genre of "gonzo journalism." Disagree? Name all the gonzos you can think of, and you come up with exactly one. Thompson was it. He owned the style; emulators were merely self-indulgent.
        The man was an essayist, pure and simple, but a great, flamboyant, flaming Red Shark of an essayist. His wit was matched by seemingly inexhaustible originality, stamina, and sheer brilliance of insight. Many reporters flame out on the five-w's, but not many have essays inside to take over.
        Maybe he finally ran out of words.
        Thompson once spoke of ending his life by driving off of a mountain road at high speed, naked, with a case of whiskey beside him and a case of dynamite in the trunk.
        In terms of impact on his legend, he might as well have done exactly that.

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