I recently finished reading Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson. The book is put together as an oral biography, rather than a rectal, I mean regular biography. The difference here is that Gonzo isn’t written by anyone, per se, but rather is a collection of stories about Hunter from the people in his life, edited together by longtime friends and Rolling Stone editors Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour. Wenner and Seymour start with family and friends recounting Thompson’s childhood in Louisville, KY, and 437 pages later end with those closest to him reflecting after his death by suicide in 2007. The book, which I bought for myself while I was supposed to be buying gifts for family for the holidays (gotta keep the economy moving, stupid), not only captures some of the most insane and hilarious antics of a true genius, but also sheds some telling light into Hunter’s motivations and outlook.

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“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” – Dr. Thompson

 

One of Hunter’s most famous stunts of course was his run for Sherif in Aspen, Colorado. By most accounts in the book, Thompson’s campaign started out more or less as a drunken, drug-addled stunt. But with an enviable amount of political astuteness, Hunter soon realized that he had an amazing opportunity to drastically re-define the local Overton Window. Seems the Sherif running for re-election was very conservative, and for the invading army of young freaks moving to Aspen at the time, there existed a lot of tension around the vast amounts of recreational drug use going on. Having gone all-out, and running the most ridiculous, freak-inspired campaign in the history of political campaigns (including shaving his head in order to continually refer to the incumbent as his “long-haired opponent”), he succesfully made the election of a more liberal, “mellow” Sherif (who happened to be a close friend of Hunter’s) a near landslide next time around.But one of Hunter’s greatest contributions, as Gonzo actually fails to make clear, is the way in which he re-set our thinking on journalism. For Dr Thompson (he actually was a doctor, sending $10 to something called the Missionaries of the New Truth in order to receive a “Doctorate in Divinity”, because “you get cut rates on hotels, and…. it always sounds good in an airport when you hear ‘paging Dr. Thompson.'”) there couldn’t possibly be a really “objective” journalism. The author’s voice is in every story; hiding it, or worse, pretending it didn’t exist, was too much for Hunter. When he began submitting news articles in which he was actually a character in the story (sometimes even the lead character!) it drastically re-spun how we thought of writing, reporting, and journalism.

In the end, for those exposed to Hunter Thompson and his ideas, he was the type of genius who challenged us all to be constantly vigilant in regards to our interactions with “reality”. As Gonzo points out, Hunter shot himself because he realized that his health was failing, and that his life was going to become increasingly predictable, routine, and dependent. His journal entry the night before his death:

“Football season is over. No more games. No more bombs. No more walking. No more fun. No more swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No fun- for anybody. You are getting greedy. Act your old age. Relax- this won’t hurt.”

Gonzo is a great read, full of can-only-be-believed because it’s Hunter Thompson tales of mayhem, and offers us one of those rare chances to re-consider what we expect and what others are expecting. Not only was Hunter’s character hell-bent on showing us the limits, he was also hell-bent on proving that those limits could be broken at any time, by anyone with the inclination to do so.

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