Deconstructing Hunter S. Thompson
By Jules Siegel
"I have heard that there was once a beneficent
non-habit-forming junk in India. It was called soma and is pictured
as a beautiful blue tide. If soma ever existed the Pusher was
there to bottle it and monopolize it and sell it and it turned
into plain old time JUNK." -- William Burroughs,
Until his funeral, I'd never read much Hunter S. Thompson. In
1974, I trudged through a Playboy excerpt from the Great White
Shark Hunt. All I remember is some rental car getting bashed about
in Cancun (where I now live), then a very remote beach destination
still under construction. Mexico was still a very poor and largely
undeveloped country. I knew that the clerk who rented him that
car would have to answer to a very angry owner or manager. This,
perhaps unfairly, turned me against Hunter S. Thompson.
I did not get many further opportunities to sample his work in
subsequent years. I was never a Rolling Stone reader even during
the very brief period I was writing for the publication. I lived
in Mexico for much of the 1970s, leaving the United States for
good in 1981. On the day of his burial, however, I came across
an unread copy of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" in
an otherwise depleted box of books my daughter left with us on
her last visit. I read this twice to make sure I was getting it
all right, laughing out loud frequently.
Judging by "Fear and Loathing," no one can dismiss
Thompson's technical skills as a writer, nor the profound sincerity
of his mostly libertarian political positions. He portrays himself
with great honesty (laced with some obvious hyperbole, to be sure)
as a degenerate alcoholic drug glutton spinning out on a wild
binge. At his best, he's hysterically funny; at his worst, he
is a bit tedious, but always interesting.
He never has a good word to say about drugs, whose effects are
always described at their most malign -- vomiting, paranoia, horrible
hallucinations, outrageously anti-social acting out, loss of motor
control, stupor. This is not surprising, as he grotesquely overdoses
on bizarre mixtures of alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, mescaline,
LSD, amyl nitrate, ether and adrenochrome.
To me, Hunter S. Thompson was a literary Cheech and Chong. In
1980, I saw my first Cheech and Chong movie -- the one with Timothy
Leary acting an ugly caricature of himself in a prison cell. I
did not laugh once. I came away disgusted, with the feeling that
they were government agents on a mission to discredit marijuana
users. In retrospect, I decided that they were adaptions to a
certain media slot -- the dopey doper -- rather than conscious
agents of some DEA conspiracy highly paid to mock their own kind
in the most stereotypical terms possible.
Descriptions of Leary's behavior in subsequent years remind me
of Hunter S. Thompson. I don't know if Leary was an alcoholic,
but substitute nitrous oxide for Gran Marnier and gin at breakfast
and you see the picture. Add Abbie Hoffman and the gestalt becomes
rather striking -- the clown-like behavior, the political performance
art, the glorification of caprice over purpose, the eventual suicide.
I liked Abbie. He was much more charming than Leary (whom I also
knew) and he had a much more profound sense of humanity. I think
Leary very well might have been a visitor from another universe
or cosmic time zone, just as he often claimed.
To be fair, all three -- Thompson, Leary and Hoffman -- did bring
radical ideas to great mass audiences, but ultimately they resemble
the worst case junkies we read about. Do we ever hear about heroin
users who are merely users rather than desperate addicts? The
DEA and its allies are fighting medical marijuana viciously because
they have to obliterate the image of respectable citizens using
a very effective, if illegal, remedy for their physical and emotional
dysfunctions. The DEA goes down in flames if that picture dominates
the media stage, not to speak of its effect on pharmaceutical
stocks. Do they want people to be able to grow their own opium
poppies and marijuana in window boxes?
Those who see marijuana, psychedelics and other drugs as holy
sacraments to help humans get through the pain and boredom of
life in industrial society are understandably reluctant to criticize
the often humorous dopey doper media celebrities. Many laugh along,
admiring their skill and success as comedians. Others cringe silently
at the stereotyped gags, like Jews in Nazi German, or people of
color in white society.
Lenin never did really say that communism could always count
on useful idiots on the left, but today, when it comes to illegal
drugs and alternative politics, the forces of repression can always
count on useful idiots to take the Cheech and Chong syndrome bait.