It’s been a decade without Hunter Thompson. The world is a scarier, more confusing place for it. Since his suicide on Feb. 20, 2005, Thompson’s legacy and cultural impact have grown exponentially. The man ended his life just like the way he lived it: with a bang. His hilarious insight and blunt observations are missed, though I think it’s important for people to remember him as a person, and not the character.
Hunter Thompson is someone who is hard to talk about. He was the first author to ever make me laugh out loud while reading him. I had a similar experience like most people who first get into him in that there was a period in my early 20s when I started not giving a fuck, did a lot of self-fulfilling things, and thought I was Hunter Thompson. His writing gives you a lot of courage, but he did not lead a personal lifestyle that should be imitated. Your friends who don’t even like to read have copies of his books. Judged purely on his ability to write, he is the best to come out of the 20th century. To this day he still holds the win for the best analogy ever used to describe a politician. He wrote nonfiction like a novel, in a multi-dimensional style that has been copied by everyone but never captured. He was a rare cross between a loner and a fuck-up, ex-jock. Despite all his confidence and bravado, Thompson was always trying to make sense of out society like many of us.
From a young age, Thompson developed an affinity for trouble making. He entered the military after being arrested for robbery in high school, where he found his place writing about sports at a newspaper in an air force base in Florida. But his “superior attitude” rubbed higher ranking officers the wrong way. He left by publishing this hilarious story in the paper. From there, Thompson cut his teeth as a copy boy and bounced around the western hemisphere working various newspaper jobs. Here’s one cover letter he wrote to the top editor at the Vancouver Sun in the late 1950s.
By the time you get this letter, I’ll have gotten hold of some of the recent issues of The Sun. Unless it looks totally worthless, I’ll let my offer stand. And don’t think that my arrogance is unintentional: it’s just that I’d rather offend you now than after I started working for you.
Thompson never got the job, but it’s as if he was knowingly building his myth, even back then as a struggling writer.
At 22, he had the insight to write the Rum Diary, an early novel about getting older and leading an aimless life abroad—but it wouldn’t be released until the late 90s. Like his idol and fellow Cancer Ernest Hemingway, whose nostalgic and simple style the book emulates, Thompson killed himself with a bullet to the head. He loved Hemingway’s writing, often typing out his novels verbatim so he could feel what it was like to string along such sentences. In 1964, Thompson visited the town in Idaho where Hemingway killed himself. He described Hemingway in his later years as a troubled, miserable man, much like himself later in life.
In 1966, Thompson took a legendary beating at the hands of the Hells Angels, a scene that concluded his book on the motorcycle gang. From there he decamped to Woody Creek, Colorado, a place he valued very much as a shelter from the hectic, outside world. In the 70s, he hit a mean streak. During a panicked “sports” assignment at the Kentucky Derby, Thompson revisited his home turf and prodded the ghosts from his past, inventing the genre of Gonzo journalism, which he is the only member of. Then it was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a grotesque homage to the end of the 60s counterculture, and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 that turned him into a rock star. Bill Murray gave one warning to Johnny Depp before he shot Fear & Loathing: Once you start acting like Hunter, you will always find yourself acting like him for the rest of your life.
His last years were spent doing what he started: writing about sports. His ESPN column filed on the morning of 9/11 foresaw the paranoia and war that would follow in the coming months and years. It appears he punched out at the right time. Who knows what he would have made of the America today, a country that is afraid of itself, who spies on its own people.
When Thompson declared a run for sheriff in Aspen, Colorado and shaved his head clean so he could refer to his conservative opponent, who only had a crew-cut, as his “long haired opponent,” Thompson knew how to turn the tables and mess with people’s perceptions. He was the guy in the back of the room we counted on to point out who the bad guys were.