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.