I was reading The Rum Diary and thinking about a young journalist on an island in the Caribbean, endless possibility ahead, racing through booze-soaked nights, writing with abandon. The picture on the cover showed a young man on a beach chair, writing in a notebook, sipping a glass of rum. I thought that one day I could be that writer, ready for adventure and mayhem. A couple hours later, my phone rang. It was a friend of mine in New York. He told me that Hunter S. Thompson had shot himself, that the young man on the cover of the novel was dead. It was Sunday, Feb. 20.
I felt my heart drop as I put down the phone, and I looked over at the book, picked it up again, looked closer at the image, and wondered why, after doing so much and inspiring so many, Thompson would end his own life at the advanced age of 67. No one will write like Thompson again. His appeal was that he went into situations pell-mell, pushing the limit, but always coming out on the other end. So it is ironic that a man who lived on the edge, in dangerous, ominous places while warped by mind-bending drugs, would die by his own hand. He seemed almost invincible. This is inspiration, and to those of us who believed in his endurance, his death is a shock.
Thompson was credited with being the father of "gonzo journalism," a once-revolutionary way of reporting that puts the writer in the story. The term "gonzo" was first applied to Thompson's work in a letter from a friend who was reacting to an article titled, "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved." Thompson wrote like he had scribbled whatever popped into his head. In many cases, "gonzo" was more the influence of Thompson's personality on the story than a new genre. His voice was its essence.
To the chagrin of young rebels and revelers, this style was actually the result of a professional background. Thompson was born on July 17, 1937, in Louisville. He studied journalism at Columbia University. His first job was as an editor at an Air Force base newspaper. After that, he was the Caribbean correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. Before gonzo hit the scene, Thompson was erudite and professional, often playing himself off the chaotic mess that was the world around him.
Thompson's work will not be forgotten as long as people want to read about adventure and nonconformist excess. When you consider his life, he should have burned out on some desert road in Nevada. But he held on, became somewhat of a myth, and, in death, is a real, eccentric icon.
Wesley Rahn is an Evergreen State College student and editorial intern at Seattle Weekly.