Hunter S. Thompson has been, until now, larger than biography. Chief American chronicler of the days when drugs were fun, Thompson has produced two classic books (Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), one near-classic (Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail 72) and lots of gibberish.
He is, nonetheless, a genuine cultural icon--and now, suddenly, the subject of three different biographies. In April, Hyperion Press will publish When the Going Gets Weird: The Twisted Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson by Boston-based writer Peter O. Whitmer. In March, Dutton will release Hunter: The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson by Jean Carroll, who has written for Esquire and Playboy.
The local entry in the gonzo sweepstakes--Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson by best-selling Scottsdale author Paul Perry--is already on bookstore shelves.
All three books claim to examine the foremost practitioner of gonzo journalism, a genre Thompson created by melding fact, fiction and dope-generated screed. All three are unauthorized.
Based on advance publicity material, Whitmer's book appears to be a straightforward accounting of the considerable destruction left in Hurricane Thompson's wake. People who have seen prepublication copies of Carroll's work report that it is half unstructured oral history from various witnesses to Thompson's dependably erratic behavior, half impressionistic porno. Perry's book, published by Thunder's Mouth Press of New York, is neither strange nor terrible. It is, instead, a sober accounting of the damage done by Thompson in the name of gonzo truth. Without the subject's cooperation, Perry has attempted to chip away pieces of Thompson's enigmatic faade. In addition to his well-deserved reputation as an alcoholic acid casualty and creative burnout, Thompson is also revealed in the book to be a wife-beating bigot, among other things. None of it, Perry says, will diminish Thompson's stature in the eyes of his fans. "He's like a mythical figure for all the wrong reasons," says Perry, whose other titles include On the Bus: The Complete Guide to the Legendary Trip of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and the Birth of the Counterculture and Closer to the Light, an examination of near-death experiences. "He takes drugs constantly, he plays with guns constantly, he even shoots wild animals. How unhip is that? And people root this man on."
Perry met Thompson in the late 1970s. Nike was underwriting Running magazine back then, and Perry, as the magazine's editor, was spending Nike's money to enlist the writing talents of characters like Thompson, Kesey and Edward Abbey. Thompson hadn't written anything of consequence in almost a decade, yet Perry had the bright idea to assign him to cover a Hawaiian marathon.
A meeting between the two (described in Perry's book) was held at Thompson's house near Aspen, Colorado. Perry entered to find the legendarily wasted journalist watching all three network news broadcasts at the same time, while simultaneously working a bottle of whiskey with one hand and both a joint and a cigarette with the other.
Perry says, "The first thought that came to mind was, 'It's all true. Holy shit. This guy is writing about his real life.'" The working relationship between editor and writer solidified Perry's opinion of Thompson's lifestyle. Thompson began writing the Running piece only after Perry locked him away in a Eugene, Oregon, hotel room. It wasn't completed until Perry staged a 72-hour session during which neither man slept or left the room. The Running piece was considered Thompson's reentry into journalism, and was later expanded into a slim book, The Curse of Lono.
Perry had interviewed Thompson at length on tape during the magazine days. Portions of that chat appear in Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson, along with other long interviews with dozens of Thompson associates, including famed illustrator Ralph Steadman (who did the cover illustration for Perry's book), childhood pals and many of the Rolling Stone editors who oversaw some of Thompson's best work.
Thompson tried to discourage some of Perry's sources from talking. "He stymied me to an extent," says Perry. "He did ask some people not to talk and they talked, anyway.
"I really do believe that unauthorized biography is really the best kind of history you're going to get. If it was authorized, it would read like the life of Bob Woodward.
"Time and again people would say, 'It's good that someone's getting this down on record before we get much older, before people die.'"
Some of the most interesting memories, Perry says, came from Thompson's Rolling Stone compatriots. The time of Thompson's greatest output coincided with what are generally considered the magazine's golden years, and though all of the editors from that era have moved on, their work with Thompson remains a high-water mark in their careers--actually, a high-water mark for American journalism in general.
"In describing Hunter, the name Peter Pan came up a lot," says Perry of the Rolling Stone alums. "They feel he really hasn't grown up in the last 20 or 30 years. And that's a disappointment for them. They expected him and his work to mature, and it really hasn't done that.
"So I think they kind of view him as a bit of a disappointment, personally. They also view him as one of their great lucky strokes in life, and as one of those real shining moments."
Perry's book leaves little hope for further shining moments from Thompson, whose published output during the 1980s and early 1990s amounted to little more than some newspaper columns for the San Francisco Examiner (an assignment that brought him to Phoenix to cover the Ev Mecham impeachment hearings; the columns were later anthologized in the book Generation of Swine: Gonzo Papers Vol. 2: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the 80s) and a few strange submissions to Rolling Stone. Perry deals with the past decade or so--a period Thompson filled with lucrative speaking engagements, bouts with the law and little writing--in just a few pages.
Thompson reportedly has been offered a huge advance to scrawl his thoughts on the Clinton campaign, but has habitually squandered generous invitations to publish in the past. Based on the profile drawn by Perry, odds are slim that he'll ever produce anything worth reading again. Thompson's contribution to literature, it seems, has already been written. "I think Hunter has a lot to be proud of," says Perry. "He's very much a self-taught individual. He never graduated from high school, never went on to college. He always picked at the periphery of the establishment. Yet he became a cultural icon."
So far Thompson has not commented on any of the three new bios. Telephone messages left at his Woody Creek, Colorado, number by New Times were unreturned, and one of Thompson's "assistants" told the Aspen Daily News that the writer is "not going to read any of those paparazzi books." The Daily News reports, however, that the same assistant was one of the first people to buy the book at a local bookstore. "I think he'll like it," says Perry. "He likes being the bad boy, and it kinda paints him as a bad boy."
To faithful Thompson readers, the question has never been badness, but rather degrees of badness. Perry says the following excerpt, from an unpublished preface to Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson, illustrates a late low degree in Thompson's behavior. "It struck me as being a little bit too negative to kick the book off with," says Perry.
It describes a recent boys'-club reunion in Louisville, Kentucky, site of Thompson's misspent youth, at which the infamous author--according to many witnesses--swilled prodigious amounts of alcohol, flaunted his disregard for Kentucky's drug laws and generally acted like his mythical self. "Maybe I should've used it as a postscript," Perry says.
He didn't; we will:
"Some things never change," said Gerald Tyrell to no one in particular. That is, unless they get worse, he thought, concealing his concern beneath a broad, uncomfortable grin. He hadn't socialized with Hunter S. Thompson in more than 30 years now, not since all that trouble in high school that almost landed them in jail. Since then he had read all of "Dr. Gonzo's" books, marveling at the freewheeling drug use, but not really believing all of what he read. Who could hit the substances this hard and still function?, he thought after reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Not even a good ol' Kentucky boy with a long tradition of boozing could still stand up after that much substance abuse. Could they? But there they were, together again after 30 years. It was May of 91 and Hunter had come home to Louisville for a reunion of the Castlewood Athletic Club, an all-American boys' club from his high school days in the 1950s. There was some doubt about whether Hunter would show up for the reunion--indeed, whether he could show up. People who had talked to him on the telephone were unable to understand him through the slurred words. In fact, his own mother had so much difficulty comprehending her own son that he finally bought her a fax machine so they could communicate. . . .
And now here they were, a bunch of the old Trojans from the Castlewood Athletic Club, sitting in Tony Musselman's restaurant in Louisville. Tyrell found it amazing that even after all these years, the focus of their attention was still Hunter. He was a mystery to them in high school and he was a mystery to them now. No one was more fun yet more trouble back then than Hunter. It had finally reached the point that even Tyrell's parents, who were former missionaries in China, wouldn't let their son socialize with this hellion. But, of course, he did, anyway. "Goddamn this is great!" exclaimed Hunter, slurring the sentence so completely that it sounded like one long word. "Goddamnthisisgreat!" is what Tyrell thought he heard. But with the tongue-tying effects of alcohol and Hunter's deep, guttural voice, Tyrell was having trouble comprehending Hunter's half of the conversation. Everyone else was, too, but that didn't stop the old friends from having a raucous good time. A lot of the Castlewood alumni had never left Louisville, and they came to Musselman's restaurant all the time. They were especially fond of the fettuccine Alfredo, "white" chili and the nacho chips with a river of warm, yellow cheese poured over them. And--oh, yeah--the drinks--margaritas, especially--just the thing to jiggle those neurons and shake loose a few high school memories. They ordered up a tableful of this fare and traded tales of the old days, stories of hazing pranks and hard-fought basketball games, all heavily glossed with the veneer of time. And they all watched Hunter. He was acting peculiar. He couldn't sit still, always fidgeting. "Flailing," as Tyrell later called it. As he spoke, he "flailed" his arms "wildly." His legs were constantly twitching in gross motions. "You know, man, I've had some brain damage," he said on three separate occasions that night, when asked to repeat himself. He wasn't eating very much, but he was drinking very much. They would later recall that the man they called "Dr. Hunto" in high school drank nine margaritas that evening, in one hour. They were amazed at this intake, so far beyond even the Kentucky tradition of hard boozing. But even more amazing than what he was drinking was what he was saying. Out of nowhere, he began relating this very bizarre tale about falling physically in love with an inanimate object while under the influence of LSD. It took over 20 minutes to tell, and went something like this: "I was at a speaking gig in Durango, Colorado, at the college there, and I was staying in one of those great old hotels they have. I wanted to stay up all night, so I took a tab of acid up in my room. I was just sitting there when all of a sudden, I fell in love with this little table in the room. It was a writing table or something, but it was a good-looking piece of work." (Long description of the table's shapely attributes.)
". . . I couldn't help myself. I had sex with this table, because it was so attractive. . . ." (Further description, mumbled incoherently.) ". . . I ate some more acid and then went down to the front desk. I told the clerk, 'I want that table. Just put it on my bill.'
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"And the guy says, 'The table's not for sale. We aren't in the furniture business.'
"I said, 'You don't understand. I'm going to take it. I'm being very responsible. I want you to put it on my bill.'"
(Almost incoherent mumble about verbal fight with the desk clerk and how Bob Culligan, a buddy from Louisville now living in Durango, would loan him cash to pay for it.)
"So the next day, I loaded it on this Lear jet to Aspen with four peacocks I bought there and flew home. And now I owe Bob $509 for the table because that was the price they put on it.
"If he hadn't paid, they would've had a bench warrant out for me."
The long story left everyone feeling slightly uncomfortable. Acid? Sex with tables? Peacocks on a Lear jet? He didn't learn that stuff at the Castlewood Athletic Club. . . .