Last night's passing of Hunter S. Thompson brings back so many memories. I may not be able to remember where I was when I heard of his death, but I remember vividly the year I first read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It was 1986, and I kept buzzing around the office of our senior technical editor when I was working at M/A-COM Linkabit in Vienna, VA. Anne had degrees in English lit, which fascinated me, because although I was well versed in the black arts, I had an abiding fascination with English literature, and adored Anne's effortless inserting into casual conversation quotes from Shakespeare, Marlowe, poets, nouvelle writers.
One sunny day, when she was dropping bon mots in her usual scattershot style, she dropped a quote I didn't recognize:
I've never advocated drugs, alcohol or violence, but they've always worked for me.
I said: Hold it. Who said that? She looked at me like I was a bug. You've never read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? No. Have you heard of Hunter S. Thompson? No.
The price she paid working with illiterate engineers is that none of us got her jokes. (We were sure they were jokes, and we were sure they were clever, but we never did get them, really.) She sighed, opened a desk drawer, reached inside, and drew out her dogeared copy, broken spine (this was the official Steadman illustrated paperback), and said, "Read it by Monday. You have four days."
I read it in a day. I laughed until I cried. It was the funniest, most outrageous book I'd ever read.
It seems that everyone outside of the sciences had read this, and everyone inside had not. I did a little experiment: I began dropping quotes from the book. Most of the fun guys responded favorably. Most of the take-themselves-too-seriously crowd did not. Ahhh! A litmus test for future friends! Excellent.
A young college puke from U Va named Dan Lyons was intrigued. I lent him my copy. He was going on a skiing trip out west. When he returned it, he laughed. "Thanks, man. What a mindblowing read." It was beat to shreds. He explained that all four of his friends read the book over the course of the week. Two actually finished it on the red-eye to Colorado. Dan said the plane was dead quiet, because everyone was asleep, but he could tell when the reader had gotten to the passage about the experimental tires, because he'd burst into maniacal, uncontrollable laughter. It happened with every one of the guys.
Alicia and I became friends when she happened to see my copy on my desk top. She was a journalism chick who did tech writing for kicks now. It was hard to see why she wanted to hang with us. She was a knockout, always properly dressed and made up, but for some reason she liked engineers. As soon as she saw FLLV, she recited long passages from memory, verbatim (I checked, of course). We were instant friends.
Jay and John and Brian and the many others who got it: this is why we're still friends. Sasha, I love you in spite of your racial handicap. I made my book club read it. Brian and I saw the movie the very first afternoon it was released. Friends of friends of my friends have read it now... the book is viral.
I'd read FLLV perhaps ten times now. Every time I go through it, I'm thrilled with Thompson's absolute command of language. Every sentence is a treasure trove, every chapter a book unto itself. The more I write, the more I begin to realize how perfect the book is.
Once you get started on the Thompson oeuvre, it's hard to stop. The natural tendency is to push it as far as it'll go, for good or for ill, which is exactly what Hunter would do. You'd have to read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, the account of the Nixon-McGovern campaign of 1972. (I thought Dick Nixon was the most hideous president in U.S. history, until George W. Bush was re-elected. The similarities between the two men are creepy.) The Great Shark Hunt. Hell's Angels. All were good, but none were perfect like FLLV.
Most recently I enjoyed HST's screeds on Page Two of the ESPN web site. Thompson was a rabid sports fanatic. His online columns had their usual mix of fact and craziness, with a side story of insane bets and shooting guns off the front porch... very entertaining.
I thought he'd live forever. I'm sorry he didn't.
I'm not sorry he committed suicide. If there's something he hated, it was staying too long. He hated complacency, and feeling sorry for oneself. He probably figured he'd check out by his own hand. That's gonzo.
We'll miss you. RIP.