An Erotic Novel

How we lost the right to feel.

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A Literary Love Affair



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, "Naked Lunch."

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.