Old And Crazy And Mumbling And Brilliant

Hunter S. Thompson, Ernest Hemingway

When Hunter S. Thompson died I thought of Ernest Hemingway, old and crazy and unable to write, who also killed himself with a shotgun in a gun-stocked fortress of a house in a little mountain paradise hell in the West. Charlie Rose and Tim Russert reran interviews with Hunter S. from 2003 when he was promoting “Kingdom of Fear.” Depressing. The lion of Gonzo was old and mumbling and incoherent. I thought how fortunate that Hemingway left no such records.

In the Sixties somebody gave me an LP record assembled from old wire recordings and transcriptions of Hemingway reading from his works. I played a minute of it – the opening of “A Farewell to Arms” – and couldn’t stand to hear any more. In my imagination built from youthful readings of his short stories and three good novels Hemingway had the voice of an Old Testament patriarch. This was some Chicago guy – too pretentious, too unmanly for “Papa.” The vinyl got tossed, unplayed.

The American Lit. guys started talking in audio and video metaphors about the time TV overtook print. I suppose they did not want to be left behind. So suddenly authors were being praised for their “voice.” Their works, for “resonating” with the times. Literary voice is an illusion arising from the printed page, or in memory of reading the printed page, as I discovered during that depressing Hemingway minute. I would thereafter prefer the illusion. Same with Hunter S., whom I had never seen or heard until he was rerun in death.

Hunter S. was 67, Hemingway, 62 (he was lionized earlier). The question, where did they go wrong? is meaningless because they actually went right (lived, loved, published!). Alcohol and battle scars were used to explain Hemingway. Alcohol and drugs, Hunter S.

He said, “I hate to advocate drugs, violence or insanity to anyone. But they’ve always worked for me.” And he was probably right. Without the chemical angle his early pieces of subjective journalism would have gone nowhere, certainly not into history. I can see all sorts of Christian-Republicans shaking their heads, saying, “What kind of message does that send to our children?”

Well, I call your attention to the case of Arnold Schwarzenegger. He became governor on the basis of his success as a movie star. He became a star on the basis of his success as a champion body builder. He became a champion with the help of steroids. He justifies the steroids in two ways: they were administered by a doctor; they were not illegal at the time. Hunter would fail both tests, but Arnold fails a more authentic one: the honesty test. He did not disclose his chemical edge on the competition at the time. Hunter S. did.

I wish I had not seen him on Charlie Rose and Tim Russert. It distracted from his printed voice, as did the drug persona. Writers should all get acting lessons, for their own survival. Second-rate actors have been known to become quite successful as Republican politicians when their acting careers tanked. (Even Clint Eastwood gave politics a hand, as mayor of Republican Carmel, Calif. He got lucky and went to directing, where his political skills have helped him sweep two Oscar shows in a row.)

Actors know how to appear moral and believable, if they want to. Arnold was able to react to his use of steroids – as he did to his habit of groping young women – with such blue-eyed and muscular forthrightness that Republicans must have nodded in consent: What a fine, strong, Christian leader. Same with their other hero, who might have used a little marijuana, a little cocaine, alcohol, but. . .

They’re not like Hunter S. Thompson, that old (now dead) and crazy druggie. He turned to politics too, but the motives were different. The Aspen cops – beholden to wealthy property owners – were harassing him as an example. He ran for sheriff (and almost won). The difference is that he had a burning sense of justice, not an eye for political opportunity. He hated lies and hypocrisy and devoted his work to exposing them, not finessing them.

I think of Lisl Auman, the young woman convicted of a murder she did not commit, that happened elsewhere as she sat handcuffed in the back of a Denver police car. It was Hunter S. Thompson who championed her cause.

If justice is ever done in this case, it will be because of his writing, his voice as a writer. I mean, if you’re ever caught in a nightmare like Lisl’s, who ya gonna call? A Denver TV station? An actor?