From Iceland — Low water mark

Low water mark

Published March 11, 2005

Low water mark

Hunter S. Thompson, the man who wrote these lines, died February 21 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 67. It is this observation, coupled with the quip “Joe Frazier, like Nixon, had finally prevailed for reasons that people like me refused to understand—at least out loud” that I wish he might be remembered for.

Instead, he is more likely to be remembered for his myriad comic-strip lines like “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me,” as quoted in the obit from his employer, Rolling Stone magazine.

Tom Wolfe, the New Journalist and fellow counter-culture scribe, who went on to become President Bush’s favourite novelist, described Thompson’s accomplishment in Fear and Loathing: “There are only two adjectives writers care about anymore…brilliant and outrageous… and Hunter Thompson has a freehold on them both.”

“Brilliant” and “outrageous” are adjectives Wolfe aspires to, but they were starting points for Thompson. What Thompson so remarkably accomplished in his writings, at its best, were “humility” and “honesty.” Read Fear and Loathing, and for every attack he throws at the police from Muskego, Oklahoma, there is the reminder that he understands the police as people. (His lawyer presents the more common view on first encountering middle America law enforcement “I saw these bastards in Easy Rider, but I didn’t believe they were real.”)

From this shock, Thompson, in his anything goes manner, brings the reader from repulsion to somewhat identifying with the officers—note how many pages are devoted to apologizing to himself, how many officers simply want to leave Thompson alone. For even the most virulent Nixon-hater, the moment Thompson’s lawyer is attacking him with a hunting knife for not properly dropping a radio into a bathtub, we understand the charm of the silent majority. (To guarantee we get the point, Thompson positioned a hideous news account about a young man ripping his own eyes from his head while on PCP very close to this passage.)

All this has been overlooked in the weeks after Thompson’s death. He is the drug writer that was caricatured, by cartoonists, by directors, and by the author himself. And as the public wakes up to his work, Thompson’s recent writings are thrown at us.

In reading over works like “Hey Rube,” or the Rolling Stone contribution “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 2004,” Thompson’s tongue is still sharp, and he has still done his research on the candidates—mid-invective he points out that Bush actually did brand his fellow fraternity members, and it was reported in the Yale Daily News. (November, 1967 if you want to look it up.)

But one key quality was gone in Thompson’s last works: he couldn’t humanize GW. Things have truly gotten so bad that America has elected someone, twice, that one of our greatest writers, a man who could show the guy-next-door qualities to everybody from Hells Angels riders to Richard Nixon, can’t even begin to find a human face for.

As Thompson put it in one of his last pieces, “Nixon was a professional politician, and I despised everything he stood for – but if he were running for president this year against the evil Bush-Cheney gang, I would happily vote for him.”
That Thompson is dead is extremely sad. That he had to spend the years before he died contemplating GW is truly tragic.

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