When Hunter S Thompson shot himself early last year, the journalistic world mourned one of its great mavericks – known for observing the past four decades of American life in books such as ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’. Thompson’s words are, of course almost umbilically tied to the cartoons of Ralph Steadman, the soft-spoken Welshman who illustrated the madness of the journeys Thompson took. Ralph Steadman has written an account of their relationship called ‘The Joke’s Over'.
Steadman begins the book by quoting Thompson saying ‘don’t write, Ralph, you’ll bring shame on your family’ – so he approached this with some trepidation…The two of them have been described as butch and sundance on acid – but that seems a little tame when you read the adventurous tales of hard drinking and living and driving.
What Thompson said in the search for the artist for 'fear and loathing': ‘what we need is someone already suffering from severe brain damage with a paranoic fear of government officials, and takes risks without realising what’s happening to him’. A sentiment with which many of us may resonate.
But this book is not just the story of a man’s creative life, it’s that of a man who interpreted the last forty years of US history, and may actually have taken his own life because he couldn’t stand what had happened to America under Bush - Steadman says that 'his American was dead'.
Of course, Thompson's great achievement was to create a new style of journalism - which he called 'gonzo' - of which Steadman says:
'Nobody I have read knows what GONZO is, was, or ever could be, not even Hunter, and if he doesn't know what it is, I do. I am the only one who does. Gonzo makes
you feel GOod rather than BAd, which is BANZO. Pursue BANZO if you must but don't blame me or even credit me or you will make me sick. GOnzo is GOod. BAnzo is BAd. It is a simple equation.'
Having said this, apparently Thompson believed that he 'would feel real trapped in this life if I didn’t know I could commit suicide at any time’, and so this is what he finally did. There is surely a degree of serious irresponsibility here and lack of concern for others - though his loved ones seemed prepared. Maybe he felt so close to his America that he felt he had to die with it.
Toward the end of the book there’s a lovely vignette that suggests there was something of a spiritual community with HST at the centre, and those involved must miss it desperately.