Richard Brautigan, Douglas Adams, and now Hunter Thompson. My heroes have always been writers. And even though I never met these guys, never shared a meal, never wrote a letter to them, when they pass, it rattles my soul.
As a writer, you’re always looking for a map, some sort of guide to tell you that you’re on the right track. There’s no one to ask, so you pick up a novel and you read the miniscule bio on the dust jacket and you try to see if maybe there’s something there that resonates with you’re own experience. (For years it was looking for how old the author was when he published his first book.)
I remember reading Brautigan in high school, Trout Fishing in America. I read it in one night, and the next morning I ran into the home room of my favorite English teacher waving the book basically screaming, “What the fuck is this? Can you do this?”
“It’s social satire,” said a patient Mr. Hatfield. He smiled then, didn’t say anything — after all, he was the guy who busted me for reading The Man With the Golden Gun behind the cover of The Sun Also Rises and gave the same smile.
A couple of years later, I loaned a big book of bizarre paintings to a guy named Rusty who I worked with at the grocery store. Hieronymous Bosch, Peter Bruegal, Dali, Magritte,Goya: guys like that. Rusty gave me a little book called Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Who knew how appropriate a trade:Hieronymous Bosch for Hunter S. Thompson?
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”
And so it began. Grown-ups not only behaved this way, but they could write about it in really, really funny ways. A door opened for me.
I’d cut my teeth on Mad Magazine and The Catcher in the Rye. My first album wasn’t The Beatles, or The Stones, or the Jackson Five, like most of my friends, it was Class Clown by George Carlin. At age twelve or so I started tumbling down a staircase of comic virtuosity, hitting every step on the way down. Cheech and Chong, National Lampoon, Richard Pryor, Saturday Night Live – I wish I could say that all of my influences were writers, but in fact, they were just the people who made me laugh, and up to that point, I had never laughed like I did at Hunter S. Thompson’s book.
Later I would go back to Brautigan, find a Connecticut General from Big Sur, and the amazing, bizarre, hilarious plague of frogs, and find the true humor in that psychopath’s voice. Then I’d stumble across a strange book by a Baroque Brit called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which I picked up based on title alone, and which influenced me later to title my own first book as a pseudo how-to), but it was Thompson’s Fear and Loathing that first gave me permission, if you will, to be a nut-case on the page.
Did you know that Thompson and Brautigan were contemporaries in Big Sur in the early sixties? Thompson the caretaker of what eventually would become The Esalen Institute, Brautigan a indigent hippie picking up cigarette butts on Highway One to make roll-your owns and living in a rattle-trap cabin up in the woods. I don’t know if they knew each other, but they were, in many ways, on parallel paths. They both had affinities for alcohol, tobacco and firearms, (I like to think that somewhere, in an especially ironic circle of Hell, Brautigan and Thompson run the entire bureau of alcohol, tobacco, and firearms). They were both on the edge and at the top of their fields, at a given time. Brautigan in poetry, Thompson in journalism. And they both blew their brains out in their remote homes.
I’m sure that it wouldn’t have made any difference to either of them that they inspired and enabled a mid-list comic novelist, and Brautigan sprayed his cerebral Rustoleum all over the walls long before I published my first book, but somehow I feel like they should have known. Like I should have sent a thank-you note. There’s a profound and palpable sense of loss.
I once asked Tim Cahill, who in 1974 went to Washington with Hunter Thompson to interview Howard Baker for Rolling Stone, what it was like to hang out with Thompson. He answered:
“Well, the first four hours of absolute craziness is a lot of fun. Then the second four hours of absolute craziness begins to get tiring. Then, by the third four hours of absolute craziness, you never want to see him again as long as you live.”
Imagine sixty-seven years of it…
Maybe it even got to be too much for Hunter.