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
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
Oakes tried to remember: Had he ever been hotter?
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,
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
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.
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
definitively mark the conclusion of the chaotic 'baby-boomer'
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").
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.