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This is skag folks, pure skag: Hunter Thompson

by Cole Louison

Maybe we shouldn't list Hunter S. Thompson as inspiration for this magazine. Then again, a look at his life can be inspiring, as long as you don't look too far. In the world of journalism and reporting, his status is legendary and his style is the norm in a lot of today's swank magazines. It is the lifestyle and attitiude so many emulate that allow Thompson to keep living the way he does without producing anything, or at least anything that even compares to his early work.

These days, Hunter is just a spectacle; a 60-year-old drug addict who can barely talk and gets carted out like the elephant man every time his publishers scrape up something from his past and hand it out as new material. The last couple years have been big for Hunter. Last winter, a fat collection of letters to friends, enemies and family Thompson wrote from the time he was 18 to 30 called The Proud Highway showed up in bookstores.

Last summer, the movie Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, with hipsters like Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci, came to theaters. This past Christmas, The Rum Diary was published and promoted by Thompson's appearances on David Letterman, Charlie Rose and in Barnes and Noble in New York City. Written when Thompson was 21 and living in Puerto Rico, the novel follows protagonist Paul Kemp's wacky adventures in the Caribbean. The novel was never published before because, as the author said last Halloween on Letterman, "It was no good."

Maybe it's the first 30 years of Hunter Thompson's life, a life he has always made sure his readers know well, that has influence and continues to influence so many writers today. Various biographies (some authorized and some not) and a slew of web pages document the author's life, but the nearly 700-page, autobiographical book of letters printed two years ago puts all of the mishmash into order.

Aside from all of the opposition his writing encountered in the journalism world, it is hard not to be impressed by Thompson's biography.

An outstanding but rowdy student at his high school in Louisville, Kentucky, Thompson missed his high school graduation because he was in jail. He was released from prison early because he agreed to join the armed forces, landing him at the Eglin Air Force Base in Walton Beach in western Florida where he soon was squatting a beach house and working as a sports editor for the base's newspaper.

"Now you know, and I know, that I've never written a word for a newspaper of any sort," wrote the 19-year old Thompson to a friend. "And you know that it's ridiculous to even speak of any experience on my part, as far as layout or page arrangement goes."

In 1960, when Thompson was 23, he moved to Puerto Rico to write for a bowling magazine and began his second novel, The Rum Diary. It was in San Juan where Thompson became friends with the then editor and later Pulitzer prize winning novelist, William Kennedy.

A year later, Thompson moved to Big Sur, California, where Thompson got his big break when the nationally circulating Rogue magazine published his expose on the area. From there Thompson hit the Caribbean again, this time going to Aruba, then Rio, then Lima, Peru. Thompson was 25 then and became a regular correspondent in the Caribbean and South America for bigger publications like the Nation and the Reporter. In 1963, he returned briefly to Louisville and then headed to Aspen, where he still lives today.

From 1964 to 1966 Thompson lived in Berkeley, writing for the University publication The Spider, and contributing to the Nation, who first published the expose about outlaw motorcycle gangs that landed the author with a book contract that would launch him into stardom at the age of 30.

Hell's Angels is the most traditionally journalistic of Thompson's work. Though Thompson's narrative is always present, he mostly keeps himself out of the story. As time went on, the Hunter character dominated more and more of Thompson's writing. For a while, a harmony existed between the subject and the author in Thompson's work. Some called this Gonzo Journalism and is most evident in the classics Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 and what the New York Times called "the best book on the dope decade," Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas.

In the shorter books that followed the classics, like Generation of Swine and Songs of the Doomed, Thompson seems more interested in the Hunter character than his subjects, sometimes plugging in excerpts from his unpublished novels and telling stories about his reckless days as a drifting reporter.

Better Than Sex, Thompson's book about the 1992 presidential election, is more of a comic book than a "major statement of our time," as is often written on the booklist on the jacket of the author's books. Half of the book is old photos and faxes the author scribbles over dirty pictures Thompson sent to the White House and the other half is Hunter talking about himself hating everything. It's a sad comparison to his powerhouse political reporting 20 years before.

Today it seems Hunter Thompson is milking himself for all he's worth. The image he made for himself in the first 15 years of his writing career is all he has to sell, as he is too lazy to go anywhere and the last thing he published was the pouty and ridiculous introduction to The Proud Highway, which does demonstrate the skill and ambition the author had when he was young.

Maybe Hunter worked hard early in his career so he wouldn't have to later on. The problem is Hunter doesn't seem to want to do anything, but still wants the attention he was getting at the high point in his career when he was categorized with non-fiction heavyweights like Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer. He just doesn't want to go away, and doesn't have to. and maybe that is because so many people are just as in love with the Hunter figure as Thompson himself.

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