In an October 1957 letter to a friend who had recommended he read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Hunter S. Thompson wrote, “Although I don’t feel that it’s at all necessary to tell you how I feel about the principle of individuality, I know that I’m going to have to spend the rest of my life expressing it one way or another, and I think that I’ll accomplish more by expressing it on the keys of a typewriter than by letting it express itself in sudden outbursts of frustrated violence. . . .”
Thompson carved out his niche early. He was born in 1937, in Louisville, Kentucky, where his fiction and poetry earned him induction into the local Athenaeum Literary Association while he was still in high school. Thompson continued his literary pursuits in the United States Air Force, writing a weekly sports column for the base newspaper. After two years of service, Thompson endured a series of newspaper jobs—all of which ended badly—before he took to freelancing from Puerto Rico and South America for a variety of publications. The vocation quickly developed into a compulsion.
Thompson completed The Rum Diary, his only novel to date, before he turned twenty-five; bought by Ballantine Books, it finally was published—to glowing reviews—in 1998. In 1967, Thompson published his first nonfiction book, Hell’s Angels, a harsh and incisive firsthand investigation into the infamous motorcycle gang then making the heartland of America nervous.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which first appeared in Rolling Stone in November 1971, sealed Thompson’s reputation as an outlandish stylist successfully straddling the line between journalism and fiction writing. As the subtitle warns, the book tells of “a savage journey to the heart of the American Dream” in full-tilt gonzo style—Thompson’s hilarious first-person approach—and is accented by British illustrator Ralph Steadman’s appropriate drawings.
His next book, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, was a brutally perceptive take on the 1972 Nixon-McGovern presidential campaign. A self-confessed political junkie, Thompson chronicled the 1992 presidential campaign in Better than Sex (1994). Thompson’s other books include The Curse of Lono (1983), a bizarre South Seas tale, and three collections of Gonzo Papers: The Great Shark Hunt (1979), Generation of Swine (1988) and Songs of the Doomed (1990).
In 1997, The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967, the first volume of Thompson’s correspondence with everyone from his mother to Lyndon Johnson, was published. The second volume of letters, Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, 1968-1976, has just been released.
Located in the mostly posh neighborhood of western Colorado’s Woody Creek Canyon, ten miles or so down-valley from Aspen, Owl Farm is a rustic ranch with an old-fashioned Wild West charm. Although Thompson’s beloved peacocks roam his property freely, it’s the flowers blooming around the ranch house that provide an unexpected high-country tranquility. Jimmy Carter, George McGovern and Keith Richards, among dozens of others, have shot clay pigeons and stationary targets on the property, which is a designated Rod and Gun Club and shares a border with the White River National Forest. Almost daily, Thompson leaves Owl Farm in either his Great Red Shark Convertible or Jeep Grand Cherokee to mingle at the nearby Woody Creek Tavern.
Visitors to Thompson’s house are greeted by a variety of sculptures, weapons, boxes of books and a bicycle before entering the nerve center of Owl Farm, Thompson’s obvious command post on the kitchen side of a peninsula counter that separates him from a lounge area dominated by an always-on Panasonic TV, always tuned to news or sports. An antique upright piano is piled high and deep enough with books to engulf any reader for a decade. Above the piano hangs a large Ralph Steadman portrait of “Belinda”—the Slut Goddess of Polo. On another wall covered with political buttons hangs a Che Guevara banner acquired on Thompson’s last tour of Cuba. On the counter sits an IBM Selectric typewriter—a Macintosh computer is set up in an office in the back wing of the house.
The most striking thing about Thompson’s house is that it isn’t the weirdness one notices first: it’s the words. They’re everywhere—handwritten in his elegant lettering, mostly in fading red Sharpie on the blizzard of bits of paper festooning every wall and surface: stuck to the sleek black leather refrigerator, taped to the giant TV, tacked up on the lampshades; inscribed by others on framed photos with lines like, “For Hunter, who saw not only fear and loathing, but hope and joy in ’72—George McGovern”; typed in IBM Selectric on reams of originals and copies in fat manila folders that slide in piles off every counter and table top; and noted in many hands and inks across the endless flurry of pages.
Thompson extricates his large frame from his ergonomically correct office chair facing the TV and lumbers over graciously to administer a hearty handshake or kiss to each caller according to gender, all with an easy effortlessness and unexpectedly old-world way that somehow underscores just who is in charge.
We talked with Thompson for twelve hours straight. This was nothing out of the ordinary for the host: Owl Farm operates like an eighteenth-century salon, where people from all walks of life congregate in the wee hours for free exchanges about everything from theoretical physics to local water rights, depending on who’s there. Walter Isaacson, managing editor of Time, was present during parts of this interview, as were a steady stream of friends. Given the very late hours Thompson keeps, it is fitting that the most prominently posted quote in the room, in Thompson’s hand, twists the last line of Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”: “Rage, rage against the coming of the light.”
For most of the half-day that we talked, Thompson sat at his command post, chain-smoking red Dunhills through a German-made gold-tipped cigarette filter and rocking back and forth in his swivel chair. Behind Thompson’s sui generis personality lurks a trenchant humorist with a sharp moral sensibility. His exaggerated style may defy easy categorization, but his career-long autopsy on the death of the American dream places him among the twentieth century’s most exciting writers. The comic savagery of his best work will continue to electrify readers for generations to come.
. . . I have stolen more quotes and thoughts and purely elegant little starbursts of writing from the Book of Revelation than from anything else in the English Language—and it is not because I am a biblical scholar, or because of any religious faith, but because I love the wild power of the language and the purity of the madness that governs it and makes it music.
HUNTER S. THOMPSON
Well, wanting to and having to are two different things. Originally I hadn’t thought about writing as a solution to my problems. But I had a good grounding in literature in high school. We’d cut school and go down to a café on Bardstown Road where we would drink beer and read and discuss Plato’s parable of the cave. We had a literary society in town, the Athenaeum; we met in coat and tie on Saturday nights. I hadn’t adjusted too well to society—I was in jail for the night of my high school graduation—but I learned at the age of fifteen that to get by you had to find the one thing you can do better than anybody else . . . at least this was so in my case. I figured that out early. It was writing. It was the rock in my sock. Easier than algebra. It was always work, but it was always worthwhile work. I was fascinated early by seeing my byline in print. It was a rush. Still is.
When I got to the Air Force, writing got me out of trouble. I was assigned to pilot training at Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola in northwest Florida, but I was shifted to electronics . . . advanced, very intense, eight-month school with bright guys . . . I enjoyed it but I wanted to get back to pilot training. Besides, I’m afraid of electricity. So I went up there to the base education office one day and signed up for some classes at Florida State. I got along well with a guy named Ed and I asked him about literary possibilities. He asked me if I knew anything about sports, and I said that I had been the editor of my high-school paper. He said, “Well, we might be in luck.” It turned out that the sports editor of the base newspaper, a staff sergeant, had been arrested in Pensacola and put in jail for public drunkenness, pissing against the side of a building; it was the third time and they wouldn’t let him out.
So I went to the base library and found three books on journalism. I stayed there reading them until it closed. Basic journalism. I learned about headlines, leads: who, when, what, where, that sort of thing. I barely slept that night. This was my ticket to ride, my ticket to get out of that damn place. So I started as an editor. Boy, what a joy. I wrote long Grantland Rice-type stories. The sports editor of my hometown Louisville Courier Journal always had a column, left-hand side of the page. So I started a column.
By the second week I had the whole thing down. I could work at night. I wore civilian clothes, worked off base, had no hours, but I worked constantly. I wrote not only for the base paper, The Command Courier, but also the local paper, The Playground News. I’d put things in the local paper that I couldn’t put in the base paper. Really inflammatory shit. I wrote for a professional wrestling newsletter. The Air Force got very angry about it. I was constantly doing things that violated regulations. I wrote a critical column about how Arthur Godfrey, who’d been invited to the base to be the master of ceremonies at a firepower demonstration, had been busted for shooting animals from the air in Alaska. The base commander told me: “Goddamn it, son, why did you have to write about Arthur Godfrey that way?”
When I left the Air Force I knew I could get by as a journalist. So I went to apply for a job at Sports Illustrated. I had my clippings, my bylines, and I thought that was magic . . . my passport. The personnel director just laughed at me. I said, “Wait a minute. I’ve been sports editor for two papers.” He told me that their writers were judged not by the work they’d done, but where they’d done it. He said, “Our writers are all Pulitzer Prize winners from The New York Times. This is a helluva place for you to start. Go out into the boondocks and improve yourself.”
I was shocked. After all, I’d broken the Bart Starr story.
What was that?
At Eglin Air Force Base we always had these great football teams. The Eagles. Championship teams. We could beat up on the University of Virginia. Our bird-colonel Sparks wasn’t just any yo-yo coach. We recruited. We had these great players serving their military time in ROTC. We had Zeke Bratkowski, the Green Bay quarterback. We had Max McGee of the Packers. Violent, wild, wonderful drunk. At the start of the season McGee went AWOL, appeared at the Green Bay camp and he never came back. I was somehow blamed for his leaving. The sun fell out of the firmament. Then the word came that we were getting Bart Starr, the All-American from Alabama. The Eagles were going to roll! But then the staff sergeant across the street came in and said, “I’ve got a terrible story for you. Bart Starr’s not coming.” I managed to break into an office and get out his files. I printed the order that showed he was being discharged medically. Very serious leak.
The Bart Starr story was not enough to impress Sports Illustrated?
The personnel guy there said, “Well, we do have this trainee program.” So I became a kind of copy boy.
You eventually ended up in San Francisco. With the publication in 1967 of Hell’s Angels, your life must have taken an upward spin.
All of a sudden I had a book out. At the time I was twenty-nine years old and I couldn’t even get a job driving a cab in San Francisco, much less writing. Sure, I had written important articles for The Nation and The Observer, but only a few good journalists really knew my byline. The book enabled me to buy a brand new BSA 650 Lightning, the fastest motorcycle ever tested by Hot Rod magazine. It validated everything I had been working toward. If Hell’s Angels hadn’t happened I never would have been able to write Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or anything else. To be able to earn a living as a freelance writer in this country is damned hard; there are very few people who can do that. Hell’s Angels all of a sudden proved to me that, Holy Jesus, maybe I can do this. I knew I was a good journalist. I knew I was a good writer, but I felt like I got through a door just as it was closing.
With the swell of creative energy flowing throughout the San Francisco scene at the time, did you interact with or were you influenced by any other writers?
Ken Kesey for one. His novels One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion had quite an impact on me. I looked up to him hugely. One day I went down to the television station to do a roundtable show with other writers, like Kay Boyle, and Kesey was there. Afterwards we went across the street to a local tavern and had several beers together. I told him about the Angels, who I planned to meet later that day, and I said, “Well, why don’t you come along?” He said, “Whoa, I’d like to meet these guys.” Then I got second thoughts, because it’s never a good idea to take strangers along to meet the Angels. But I figured that this was Ken Kesey, so I’d try. By the end of the night Kesey had invited them all down to La Honda, his woodsy retreat outside of San Francisco. It was a time of extreme turbulence—riots in Berkeley. He was always under assault by the police—day in and day out, so La Honda was like a war zone. But he had a lot of the literary, intellectual crowd down there, Stanford people also, visiting editors, and Hell’s Angels. Kesey’s place was a real cultural vortex.
You’ll be happy to learn that nobody ever died on my watch. Nevertheless, each week, one of us counselors had a Ralph in our cabin; the camper who was a magnet for misfortune, some happy-go-lucky kid who always wandered into poison ivy, or a wasp’s nest, or a bevy of low-swooping bats. I knew many boys like Ralph (heck, I had been a boy like Ralph), though I further connected with this particular segment of the essay because Auster’s mental searing easily translated to mental searings in my own life—the image of a grandfather lying lifeless on a bedroom floor, the memory of a last wet breath from a beloved dog spilling out into my palms.
It wasn’t until last week that I got around to really studying the essay in its entirety.
This is what I found:
Five anecdotes in five segments.
Segment 1 describes a pregnant woman who, in the late stages of two pregnancies, serendipitously turns on the television to the exact same movie, and in both instances, gives birth by movie’s end.
Segment 2 recounts Auster’s paternal instincts mysteriously transporting him to the precise coordinates that allow him to catch his free-falling daughter.
Segment 4 shows a former German prison guard and his former prisoner-of-war who, despite their past, befriend one another many years later when their children fall in love.
And finally, segment 5 describes Auster’s boyhood encounter with Willie Mays, a heartbreaking scene in which the author’s lack of a pencil cost him an autograph.
But what, I wondered, connects these anecdotes?
And why, I wondered, is this essay called “Why Write?”
The answer comes in the essay’s second-to-last line, when Auster explains the long-lasting effect of missing out on Mays’ autograph.
“If nothing else, the years have taught me this: if there’s a pencil in your pocket, there’s a good chance that one day you’ll feel tempted to start using it.”
Upon first encountering “Why Write?” I could see no further than my own experience, but when reading it again, I began to see greater connectivity by zooming outward. Each segment, for me, became a part of something larger.
When speaking to my students about similarly structured essays, I often find myself comparing their structures to constellations. I’m the hair-brained professor scrawling stars across the latitudes of the whiteboard and connecting them with dotted lines.
“Much like a constellation,” I blather, “you can only understand the work as a whole by understanding the beauty of each star individually, as well as their collective beauty.”
Who knows what the hell I’m talking about. Who knows if my schematic makes sense.
All I know is the students are kind enough to pick up their pencils and humor me with their half-hearted notes.
They—like Auster—understand that the first rule of being a writer is to carry a pencil.
Because who among us can ever predict when and where lightning might strike?
B.J. Hollars is the author of two books of nonfiction, Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America, the 2012 recipient of the Society of Midland Authors' Award, and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa, forthcoming in 2013. His short story collection, Sightings, is forthcoming next year from Indiana University Press. He teaches creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.