Deconstructing Hunter S. Thompson

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“I have heard
that there was once a beneficent non-habit-forming junk in India.
It was called soma and is pictured as a beautiful blue tide. If
soma ever existed the Pusher was there to bottle it and monopolize
it and sell it and it turned into plain old time JUNK.”

~
William Burroughs, Naked
Lunch

Until
his funeral, I’d never read much Hunter S. Thompson. In 1974, I
trudged through a Playboy excerpt from the Great White Shark Hunt.
All I remember is some rental car getting bashed about in Cancun
(where I now live), then a very remote beach destination still under
construction. Mexico was still a very poor and largely undeveloped
country. I knew that the clerk who rented him that car would have
to answer to a very angry owner or manager. This, perhaps unfairly,
turned me against Hunter S. Thompson.

I
did not get many further opportunities to sample his work in subsequent
years. I was never a Rolling Stone reader even during the very brief
period I was writing for the publication. I lived in Mexico for
much of the 1970s, leaving the United States for good in 1981. On
the day of his burial, however, I came across an unread copy of
Fear
and Loathing in Las Vegas
in an otherwise depleted box of
books my daughter left with us on her last visit. I read this twice
to make sure I was getting it all right, laughing out loud frequently.

Judging
by Fear and Loathing, no one can dismiss Thompson’s technical
skills as a writer, nor the profound sincerity of his mostly libertarian
political positions. He portrays himself with great honesty (laced
with some obvious hyperbole, to be sure) as a degenerate alcoholic
drug glutton spinning out on a wild binge. At his best, he’s hysterically
funny; at his worst, he is a bit tedious, but always interesting.

He
never has a good word to say about drugs, whose effects are always
described at their most malign – vomiting, paranoia, horrible hallucinations,
outrageously anti-social acting out, loss of motor control, stupor.
This is not surprising, as he grotesquely overdoses on bizarre mixtures
of alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, mescaline, LSD, amyl nitrate, ether
and adrenochrome.

To
me, Hunter S. Thompson was a literary Cheech and Chong. In 1980,
I saw my first Cheech and Chong movie – the one with Timothy
Leary acting an ugly caricature of himself in a prison cell. I did
not laugh once. I came away disgusted, with the feeling that they
were government agents on a mission to discredit marijuana users.
In retrospect, I decided that they were adaptations to a certain
media slot – the dopey doper – rather than conscious agents
of some DEA conspiracy highly paid to mock their own kind in the
most stereotypical terms possible.

Descriptions
of Leary’s behavior in subsequent years remind me of Hunter S. Thompson.
I don’t know if Leary was an alcoholic, but substitute nitrous oxide
for Gran Marnier and gin at breakfast and you see the picture. Add
Abbie Hoffman and the gestalt becomes rather striking – the clown-like
behavior, the political performance art, the glorification of caprice
over purpose, the eventual suicide. I liked Abbie. He was much more
charming than Leary (whom I also knew) and he had a much more profound
sense of humanity. I think Leary very well might have been a visitor
from another universe or cosmic time zone, just as he often claimed.

To
be fair, all three – Thompson, Leary and Hoffman – did
bring radical ideas to great mass audiences, but ultimately they
resemble the worst-case junkies we read about. Do we ever hear about
heroin users who are merely users rather than desperate addicts?
The DEA and its allies are fighting medical marijuana viciously
because they have to obliterate the image of respectable citizens
using a very effective, if illegal, remedy for their physical and
emotional dysfunctions. The DEA goes down in flames if that picture
dominates the media stage, not to speak of its effect on pharmaceutical
stocks. Do they want people to be able to grow their own opium poppies
and marijuana in window boxes?

Those
who see marijuana, psychedelics and other drugs as holy sacraments
to help humans get through the pain and boredom of life in industrial
society are understandably reluctant to criticize the often humorous
dopey doper media celebrities. Many laugh along, admiring their
skill and success as comedians. Others cringe silently at the stereotyped
gags, like Jews in Nazi German, or people of color in white society.

Lenin
never did really say that communism could always count on useful
idiots on the left, but today, when it comes to illegal drugs and
alternative politics, the forces of repression can always count
on useful idiots to take the Cheech and Chong syndrome bait.

March
9, 2005

Jules
Siegel’s [send him
mail
] writings have been published in Playboy, Rolling
Stone, the Village Voice, and many other publications. His latest
book, Mad Laughter, Fragments of a Life in Progress is now
available at http://www.lulu.com/jules.

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