(HOST) This morning, commentator Philip Baruth discusses the death of one of his writing heroes, Hunter S. Thompson, who committed suicide recently at his home in Colorado.
(BARUTH) In many ways, Hunter S. Thompson was not a nice man.
In 1960, for instance, at age 23, long before he’d made a name for himself, Thompson showed up at a party in Big Sur, California, out in the redwoods. The room was packed with poets, sculptors, wannabe revolutionaries. The star attraction was Joan Baez, already a genuinely renowned folksinger and peace activist.
Baez, like a good pacifist, had brought a kitten to the party. Hunter Thompson, like Hunter Thompson, had brought a trained hunting dog, a whippet, and in that nervous moment when everyone in the room looked up to see the whippet, and then looked back at the cat, Thompson – according to witnesses – told the dog to “get that kitten.”
And “get that kitten” the whippet did. Baez never spoke to Thompson again. As Thompson’s friend Jo Hudson later put it, “It was a very, very awkward thing.”
I imagine it was awkward being known not merely as a kitten killer, but as the killer of the kitten of Joan Baez. But no more awkward, really, than my having to explain, at various points over the years, exactly why I idolized this writer, Hunter Thompson: a counter-cultural hero who was also a gun freak; a lifetime alcoholic; an abuser of drugs; and occasionally of people.
How to explain that this man had more effect on my writing life than any other single author? How to explain how profoundly his suicide affected me the other morning, as I drove up Pearl Street and heard the news report that he’d shot himself in his kitchen in Woody Creek, Colorado?
Like all great satirists, Thompson was a deeply angry man, and when he found a suitable target for that anger, his prose became as focused and as devastating as a flame-thrower. In “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail”, it was Richard Nixon, and no other reporter caught the dark spirit of Nixon’s administration earlier or more accurately.
Thompson loved America, but he didn’t spare America when it failed his sense of justice. The 1980s he called “The Generation of Swine,” and he was devastated that the centerpiece of Clinton’s 1992 campaign called for 100,000 more police on American Streets. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his only great novel, Thompson’s narrator finds himself at a District Attorneys’ convention, surrounded by a seemingly infinite number of prosecutors and undercover agents. No image captures more clearly what he did not want America to become: a land of lies and jails and arrogance.
That’s what makes me sadder than anything else: at no time in recent memory have we needed Thompson’s outrage more than today. And now he’s gone, silenced by his own hand. It isn’t right, and it isn’t fair, but there is an inescapable logic: for all great satirists, fear and loathing begin and end with the writer himself.
Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.