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March 23-April 6, 2005 Issue #71
 Now in a Persistent Vegetative State
50 Most Loathsome People of 2004
The Controversial Article Everyone's Talking About
 
Tom Cruise Strikes Back
Revenge of the Nerd
 
MINIMALLY CONSCIOUS Facts are Bit Players in Schiavo Saga
by Allan Uthman
JACKASSES
Democrats Prepare to Assume the Position
by Matt Taibbi
COMMUNITY BASED CORRECTIONS, LLC
by BuffaloPundit
BUCKLEY CAN SUCK ME
by Matt Taibbi
UNCLE TOM AWARDS
by Johnathan Matthews
 
HOW I BEDDED ANN COULTER
by Dr. I.M. Simpering
 
SUPREME COURT RULES
Ten Commandments are Law, Arrest Warrants Issued
 
Metal Detector Fails To Stop School Shooting; Schools Consider Larger Detectors
by Josh Righter
 
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Buckley can Suck me
William F. Buckley Protects Queen From Good Writing
by Matt Taibbi

One can be sorry that Hunter Thompson died as he did, but not sorry, surely, that he stopped writing.

- William F. Buckley


Pop quiz: which immensely famous literary hero is described in the following piece of book-jacket copy?

This newly minted CIA agent-brainy, bold, and complex-began his career by saving the queen of England and quickly took his place in the pantheon of master spies drawn up by Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, and John LeCarre.

Shame on you if the name "Blackford Oakes" didn't spill off your tongue in the first split second.

You must be a brain-dead product of the tv generation if the leading man of William F. Buckley's famous series of swashbuckling spy novels isn't as familiar to you as a member of your own family. And don't even bother showing your face in public if it somehow escaped your notice that Buckley even wrote novels at all; to confess to such a thing would be to admit to having no culture whatsoever.

Who could forget the stirring opening to Tucker's Last Stand? As the curtain rose on the rarefied chambers of the hero's Yale-educated mind, readers recognized a literary home as warm and familiar as Yossarian's tent, or Phil Marlowe's Hollywood Boulevard office:

Blackford Oakes tried to remember: Had he ever been hotter?

There had been that stifling cottage on the beach in Havana where he spent those miserable weeks waiting on the caprices of Che Guevara. How hot had it got there? He tried to remember, on one of the endless summer afternoons. One of his professors at Yale in the mechanical engineering school had said airily to his class that engineers always know the temperature of the air... Yes, Professor Schmidt, the students would nod, mutely...

According to Bill Buckley, Hunter Thompson wasn't funny and couldn't write. Apparently the correct way to write is to dress up a thinly veiled version of yourself as an action hero, give him the name of a gay pirate and have him navigate 300 pages of blunt implausibilities to save the Queen of England-punctuating the plot along the way with the tweedy aphorisms of your favorite Yale professor.

This is the kind of person who lined up by the dozen last week to tell us that Hunter Thompson was a dreadful hack whose work will be forgotten. The pronouncements were generally accompanied by a moral judgment. Thompson was variously blamed for the moral lassitude of the 60s counterculture (Steven Schwartz in the Weekly Standard), or for the intellectual corruption of the next generation of youth (Austin Ruse of the National Review blamed plummeting GPAs in the 70s on Thompson) or even for the corruption of journalism itself. Numerous critics insisted, with a straight face, that the life of Hunter S. Thompson had made Jayson Blair inevitable.

All of these tape-delay obituaries had the same theme. They all argued that when Thompson died, a long accidental cultural detour had finally ended, and we were back on course again, a purged America. Schwartz actually spelled out this equation directly: "The suicide of Hunter S. Thompson…may definitively mark the conclusion of the chaotic 'baby-boomer' rebellion."

For reasons that ought to be obvious, I'd be the last person to ever complain about a media figure having no respect for the dead. There are probably people out there who would find Ruse's contention that Thompson was stoned or hung over when he died mean-spirited, and I'm sure there are others who would be outraged by Schwartz's implicit claim that Thompson was killed in an act of clear poetic justice by the 60s ethos he helped create ("The lonely death of Thompson-he shot himself in his kitchen-seems more emblematic than any other associated with the '60s").

But I'm not offended by that, and I doubt Thompson would have been, either. Thompson was never particularly interested in protecting the honor of his person; he rarely claimed such honor existed. In fact, he usually argued the opposite, and even though he was one of my heroes when I was growing up, I usually agreed with him there. Thompson the human being-the cartoonish, self-parodying, high-maintenance alcoholic-never held any interest for me.

He could have been a Klansman, for all I cared. Thompson the man was irrelevant, just as it was irrelevant that Saki was a pompous dandy who never paid his debts, or that Nikolai Gogol was an insufferable reactionary who went to his deathbed believing that the repeal of slavery was a mistake.

You just never know what kind of person a good writer might be in private, and it never matters. You judge a writer by his books-and in the case of Hunter Thompson, nothing could be more laughable than a William Buckley or a Steven Schwartz even offering an opinion about his talent. The only way Buckley could get a laugh out of a person under 70 is if he fell off his Hinckley into a school of barracuda.

All of these articles by conservatives blasting Thompson insist that their quarrel with him was that he was a hack, a journalistic phony and a moral degenerate whose popularity can be explained entirely by his generation's desire for a champion of egomaniacal indulgence.

But they're lying. Their real problem with Thompson was that he was all of these things and a great writer. If he were really just a hack, he would have had successful imitators. But no one has come close. Hell, even Thompson himself couldn't rip himself off over most of the last 30 years. His schtick, when he was on, was that difficult and subtle-even he didn't know how to reproduce it.

For that one 10-year period in the 60s and 70s when Thompson was writing well, his articles and books were basically one long novel with a classic comic theme-the hero trying frantically to communicate with the outside world, and failing spectacularly, drowning in misunderstandings and incurring absurd disasters every step of the way.

It was the same basic structure as Kafka's novels, except that the Castle was 70s America. When he was on, the tension in Thompson's books came from the narrator's endless, fruitless quest to determine whether this was his fault or everyone else's. He alternated between being horrified by the greed, violence and falsity of modern America and realizing that it was his own goddamn fault if he needed golf shoes to negotiate a hotel lobby.

He told this story so well that it made you laugh out loud. And only an idiot-a Buckley or a Schwartz-could argue that the hero in this story somehow represented the 60s counterculture, or a vanished liberalism. If that were true, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas wouldn't be funny anymore-and it definitely still is, and will be for at least the next hundred years. What Thompson represented was the individual who couldn't fit in, the person who wanted to believe but couldn't, the terminal incompetent who could never quite find his way home.

Those people didn't vanish with the 60s. They will be with us forever-I was one-and Thompson's books will always make sense to them. And that's what the Buckleys of the world can't stand: that this infuriating person wasn't a cultural accident that disappears with time, but a permanent accident of fate. God isn't Professor Schmidt, and he doesn't always reward the teacher's pet. Sometimes he lays his hands on Hunter Thompson. And thank God for that.

 
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