Hunter Thompson: A Life of Excess

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“Louisville, the cultural center of the Bluegrass State and home to the Kentucky Derby, is famous for its production of cheese-burgers, cigarettes, gin, half the world’s bourbon, and Hunter Thompson.” Thompson was born during the Great Depression to Virginia Ray and Jack Thompson. Thompson was the oldest of three sons, he led the way from the beginning of his life. Thompson and his family lived in a rural middle-class area in a neighborhood with many other families just like theirs. “His parents, Virginia Ray and Jack, were both alcoholics, and because of Thompson, the family was looked down upon in the neighborhood.” He became a troublemaker from the beginning. Thompson was always getting into trouble with they boys that lived around the neighborhood. “Jack, an insurance salesman, was a believer in corporal punishment and practiced it frequently on his two oldest sons, Hunter and Davidson.” Jack continued to be strict with Thompson until the end of his life.

Thompson had many playmates throughout his childhood. He had one during every stage of his life. “Hunter’s boyhood pal was Duke Rice. They were crazy about sports. They used to watch the Louisville Colonels through holes in the outfield fence at Parkway Field.” Thompson and Rice stayed very close childhood friends. They were together constantly until a new boy named Gerald Tyrrell moved into a house around the block from the Thompsons. Tyrrell and Thompson hit it off from the start. They continued to be good friends as they grew up and matured together. When they became teenagers the two started to become interested in girls together. Thompson’s father suddenly died of a heart attack when he was fifteen years old. This was right around the time that he first started drinking. Drinking was natural for everyone to do in the town, Thompson was bound to start sooner or later. This was the start of a habit that would greatly affect his writing and a habit that would lead to much more then he expected.

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Thompson got into trouble with drinking as soon as he began. He would cut school to hide in his room and drink and Thompson would go to important functions drunk. He was known as the kind of kid to keep your sons and daughters away from. Thompson became a disgrace to his family, and he augmented the Thompson’s already bad name they had for themselves. Thompson was arrested many times for situations having to do with alcohol. The people in the town gossiped, everyone knew of Thompson’s bad reputation. Drinking would plague him for the rest of his life.

Most of the subjects Thompson writes about are subjects that were prevalent in his upbringing. “Many of his favorite themes, such as violence, sports, politics, sex and drugs, dominate his writing. Especially interesting is the fact that these same themes took root in his childhood, and they are all subjects he enjoys writing about.” Jack, his father, was a very intense and angry man; this was passed down to Thompson. He is passionate, and writes in a fiery way about controversial topics. The leading mannerisms that Thompson manifests are similar to his father’s and he threads those in and out of his writing.

Another style Thompson is famous for in his writing is his incredible descriptive skills. The readers of a Thompson work will often find themselves laughing out loud, or with mouths wide open and jaws on the floor. He loves to shock and amaze the reader, and make the reader think. Since most of his most famous works were written in the transitional stage of the sixties to the seventies, Thompson often likes to capture the feel of the time. He makes readers feel as though they are in the center of it all. He surrounds the reader in his weird, unnatural, and crazy, yet welcoming world, assuming the reader’s mind is open to all possibilities. “His writings do more than just describe the events of his time, they also successfully portray the attitudes and feelings of the times.” The stories created by Thompson lead the reader on a journey throughout his almost bipolar mind. It starts with wild descriptions and crazy scenarios, then brings the reader to a place to stop and think about serious issues. Thompson is often margonalized as a serious journalist because of his different and offbeat style. But a good reader of his will delve deeper and finds topics that are highly sophisticated. A very famous speech by Thompson, that appears in Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to The Heart of the American Dream, has been named The Wave Speech and portrays Thompson’s incredible ability to place the reader mentally in his world.

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda… You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning…

And that, I think, was the handle- that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting- on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark- that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

This speech gives the sense of what it was like in that time period, and leaves the reader with the same feelings of a person who had actually been there.

Ever since Thompson’s early childhood experiences with alcohol he continued to be an avid drinker. This, later into adulthood, lead to marijuana, then to harder drugs. Alcohol played such a big part in his upbringing that naturally it greatly effected his writing career. When Thompson began his habit of using drugs, that also influenced his work. “Alcohol and drugs play a major role in the works of Hunter S. Thompson, but he portrays them as mere accessories to his everyday life.” The consumption of alcohol and drugs by Thompson that is documented in his writing is at an almost inhuman level. There are theories of possible exaggeration of Thompson’s drug use. The reader must look at Thompson’s drug use in their own perspective. Once a doctor examined it and concluded that no normal man could endure that kind of abuse to his body. Hunter S. Thompson is no normal man.

Thompson began to become more dependent on the drugs and alcohol. He constantly drank excessive amounts of whiskey and was almost always twisted on some sort of weird drug. There was nothing that he would not try. He went up and down the list of every imaginable drug one could take. He was afraid of none of them and is quoted as saying, “The fact that I’m not dead is sort of puzzling to me. It’s sort of an awkward thing to deal with.” It came to the point where Thompson needed drugs no matter what he did. He took certain drugs for certain activities. He knew what drugs would intensify any situation.

In Thompson’s writing career he developed a style of journalism that is named Gonzo journalism. It is his own personal style that differed from anything that preceded it. It is the idea that the story is written as it happens. Everything must be crystal clear and documented exactly as they occur. To achieve this Thompson used a tape recorder and recorded most of his conversations. He then went back and wrote the novel from those tapes. Another theme often used by Thompson is that of the search for the American dream. It is one of his favorite topics, in writing and in his own life. Thompson is always on the prowl for the American dream and is constantly bringing it up in his writing. These two methods used by Thompson set him apart from other writers and journalists. His Gonzo search for the American dream makes him different and unique.

“[Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas] The Story became not how he covered the story, but how he totally avoided the story with the help of many dangerous drugs.” Perhaps the apex of Thompson’s drug abuse takes place in his novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thompson had a friend named Oscar Zeta Acosta, a Chicano lawyer who was also a “savage beast”. Acosta was convinced that the world was out to get him and every other Chicano. He spent most of his time wreaking havoc and defending other Chicanos in a court of law. The book started out as a piece Thompson was asked to write for Sports Illustrated, he was to cover the Las Vegas Mint 400 motorcycle race. Thompson saw this as a prime opportunity to discover the American dream. He invited Acosta to an all- expense paid trip to Las Vegas to find the heart of the American dream. It was a prime opportunity and life- changing event for both of them.

In the book Thompson documents himself and Acosta, under the fake names of Rauol Duke accompanied by his attorney and physician, Dr. Gonzo, and their trip to Las Vegas. It starts out with their preparations and the drive to Vegas. Once there, the two do nothing but create trouble on the streets of Las Vegas, but the catch is that the whole time they go unnoticed because of the already wild residents and tourists there. They live in their room and run up a huge hotel bill, which they have no money to pay. Acosta and Thompson visit such places as a circus and concerts on mescaline and ether. They park on sidewalks, and see and converse with lizard people. It is at that point in the book where Thompson’s descriptive skills truly shine. Thompson attempts, in vain, to cover the Mint 400 Race; instead he is left with the beginnings of what will soon become a masterpiece.

Shortly after he returns from Vegas, Thompson is assigned another story to cover. This time it is a Narcotics convention, also being held in Vegas. So without a second glance, Thompson and Acosta go back to finish the second half of what they set out to do, find the American dream. This turns out to be a perfect second half to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the two Vegas trips are merged into one, with the disappearance, then reappearance, of Acosta. They once again milk Vegas for all its worth with the help of many dangerous drugs. This book is often looked at as not pertaining to serious matters, but if examined the reader sees that it deals with many other issues besides mischief and drug use.

Thompson is known for taking a person who is looked at as a beast in society and exploring the sensitive and more personal side. This is portrayed in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as the sensitizing of himself as an avid drug user. Thompson takes the people that society rejects for one reason or another and sees what is good about them. This was the goal in another work by Thompson, Hell’s Angels. Like Fear and Loathing, Hell’s Angels started out as a newspaper article Thompson wrote, and was later developed into a novel. The assignment was to do an article on the Hell’s Angels as personally as possible. Thompson became a part of the motorcycle gang, he even went as far as buying a bike. In his time with them he experienced many shocking and appalling, yet sometimes hilarious episodes.

Thus, Thompson set out to find the true story of the Angels, propelled by a desire to find out what was really happening in their world, to experience it as much as possible as they did, and then write the story in a style true to his sense of the experience.

Like Fear and Loathing in Hell’s Angels Thompson wrote in his personally developed Gonzo style. He takes rapid notes when he is with the Angels, and also tape-records a lot of information. The book is full of experiences and episodes involving and surrounding the lives of the Hell’s Angels. Also, in Hell’s Angels Thompson searches for the elusive American dream. He thinks that it may be found within the lives of the Hell’s Angels. Thompson fits in perfectly with the Angels, because it is a group of people who are just as hot- tempered and wild as he is.

Gonzo journalism is a style that has changed the modern face of journalism. The idea of the story being in almost play by play action slightly resembled that of stream of consciousness writing. When Thompson first used this Gonzo style his boss, Felton, as well as the general public was taken aback. Gonzo was discussed and dissected, it was noticed for its greatness and gained an almost cult following. Many people analyzed Gonzo. “Felton described Hunter’s innovation later as ‘a personalized form of journalism, happening at the moment of the action, not later. But it was different from journalism because it was provoked. Most of these events were real, they just wouldn’t have happened in many cases if the writer had not provoked them’.”

One thing that made Thompson such a good political journalist and novelist was that everything was personal with him. He was involved in the story. Thompson lived it out, he experienced what only some people imagine. He took every wild fantasy that the public was too afraid to live out, and lived them out. People admired him for it, some almost worshipped him. The public, his devoted readers, wanted to lead the Gonzo lifestyle with Thompson; they wanted to go wild in Vegas, twisted on drugs, and not only live to tell the tale, but write an account of it so eloquent that is would blow the socks off of any professor or teacher. Hunter S. Thompson became an idol to many because the readers felt, from his books, that they knew him personally. “But the Gonzo style of journalism called for him to be ‘as personally involved as possible’ in the story, ‘right in the middle of whatever I am writing about’.” That was the key to Gonzo journalism, that personal touch that made the insanity of it all see so real.

Thompson has many topics that he likes more then others, the same topics that were so prevalent in his life. He loves to write about sex, drugs, violence, sports, and politics, but perhaps his favorite topic of all is the search for the American dream. In almost every writing of Thompson’s he, at least, makes some mention of it, but in some cases he write whole books, essays, or articles about it. The search for the American dream has been a topic of many books before Thompson. Perhaps one of his favorite books, The Great Gatsby, influenced him in his obsession with finding the dream. Thompson had many experiences looking for the dream, and those experiences make up a good portion of his written work.

The idea to use the trip to Vegas to find the American Dream hit Thompson like a ton of bricks. “Frustrated by the Chicano culture in East L.A., Thompson has the idea of doing a piece about the American dream in Las Vegas, a follow- up to the Kentucky Derby piece.” He then quickly found Acosta, the most perfect partner in crime for Thompson, and told him his plan. “I tell you, my man, this is the American dream in action! We’d be fools not to ride this strange torpedo all the way out to the end.” He chased the American dream all over Las Vegas. Sometimes he thought that he had it found and figured out, sometimes it seemed so far away, but that did not stop Thompson from trying. He did everything in his power, everything that he knew how to do, to find it.

A powerful combination of style and subject makes any work of writing incredible. Thompson’s beautifully lethal combination was the search for the American Dream, written in his own Gonzo style. Those two topics used in conjunction, especially in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, ushered readers to a wild ride. Many were shocked and appalled by Thompson’s risqué subject manner and incredibly lewd language, but others were delighted and enthralled by his writing skills and strong opinions. “But what was the story? Nobody had bothered to say so. We would have to drum it up on our own. Free Enterprise. The American dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now! Pure Gonzo journalism.” Thompson knew what he was doing, and he knew how the readers would react before he even published anything. He knew that he had a deadly duo, and Thompson knew how to use it.

Thompson also saw the American dream in other aspects of his life, besides in Vegas. He not only explored the search for the American dream, he also explored the death of it. Thompson is an avid political activist, and political writer, so he always tries to witness the American dream popping up in current events. “Late that night, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. Although Hunter had been away from the screen at the moment when it happened, he felt he had witnessed the death of the American dream on television. In hopes of witnessing the death of the American dream firsthand, Hunter decided to attend the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August.” Throughout his life Thompson was always in search of the American dream, and it always played a big role in his writing.

Ultimately, Hunter S. Thompson seriously aided the modernization of journalism. He developed and perfected his own style of journalism, Gonzo. He shocked the world with Gonzo. It was enjoyed and loved by many. Even its readers did not enjoy his style they still came away from his stories with a fresh perspective. This is what Thompson strives for. His exploration of the life and the death of the American dream have influenced many people. He has inspired many to stop leading their bland day to day lives and to go out and search for what they believe the American dream is. But is that not what the American dream is? It all depends on the individual, but at least Thompson has gotten through to some. Those people, who he has reached, will be forever changed, even if it is just a little bit.

Hunter S. Thompson is still alive and well today, surprisingly, considering all of the abuse his body has endured. He is still a drug user, and a heavy drinker, some things will never change. He still writes, but publishes almost nothing. There have been some rumors of new books, but nothing has came through. He lives on a piece of land he calls Owl Farm, in Woody Creek, Colorado. Thompson keeps mostly to himself, but his neighbors still complain occasionally about the guns that he shoots on his property. Hunter S. Thompson is a strange and passionate man. He is hard to explain and full of bizarre idiosycrocies, but that is what makes him such an intriguing and intelligent individual. He is a true American original. “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”

Benson, John E., “Drugs in the Works of Hunter S. Thompson.” 1998

Birkerts, Sven, “Strange Pollen Dr. Thompson and the Spirit of the Age.” The Atlantic Monthly Company. August 1997

Fahey, Todd Brendan, “Hunter S. Thompson: The champion of Fun.” Issue of Fling. 1991

Gonzo, “When the Going Gets Weird the Weird Turn Pro.”

Hahn, Matthew, “Writing on the Wall.” Atlantic Monthly Company. 1997

Johnson, Michael, “Hell’s Angels- Critique.” University of Kansas. 1971

Othitis, Christine, “The Beginnings and Concepts of Gonzo Journalism.” 1994, revised in March 1997

Othitis, Christine, “Common Themes and Their Origins.” 1997

Perry, Paul, “Fear and Loathing, The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson.” Thunder’s Mouth Press. 1992

Thompson, Hunter S., “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.” Random House. 1996

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Hunter Thompson: A Life of Excess. (2018, Jul 19). Retrieved from