HUNTER S. THOMPSON, 1937-2005

As of last week, there was no word of a suicide note from Hunter Thompson, and it's just as well: that would be a document so scary it should be suppressed, like the Third Secret of Fatima. But isn't that what he'd been writing all these years? Not some self-pitying apologia for punking out when the game got rough, but thousands of pages of reckless confrontation--both with the evils of this world and with the emptiness behind its mask. We should have known it from his first book, in 1965, when he was riding and partying with the Hells Angels. And certainly from "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" in 1971. In that journalistic near-death experience, his willful failure to get the story--he went to cover a motorcycle race and a drug-enforcement convention, and incidentally to find the American Dream--became the story. Playing with guns and speeding cars, incapacitating himself with LSD: not clear enough that he was pushing it to the edge? Then consider that passage about how druggies less tough-minded than himself, the "failed seekers" of the '60s, "never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody... is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel... It is also the military ethic... a blind faith in some higher and wiser 'authority'... The General, The Prime Minister... All the way up to 'God'." In Thompson's universe, you were on your own, and you took your life in your hands.

This is the man whom Tom Wolfe is now calling "the 20th century's greatest comic writer in English." (The usual candidate is P. G. Wodehouse, but Wolfe is right to prefer terror embraced to terror repressed.) Major comic writers--Shakespeare, Swift, Twain, Beckett, William Burroughs--always work with fear and loathing, like the nameless geniuses who make up the jokes we tell, so notoriously preoccupied with cruelty, humiliation, disgust and the untrustworthiness of any authority or paradigm. If you don't want to go out on that limb with Wolfe, you can stick with the crowd and call Thompson a pioneer of the New Journalism, like Gay Talese, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Wolfe himself. True enough, but last week fellow journalists went so far as to call him "influential." They wish. Now and then a certifiably literary writer--David Foster Wallace, Denis Johnson--will do a Thompson-like work of nonfiction. But while major magazines still let journalists personalize a story with their own observing presence, only bloggers (and such documentary filmmakers as Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock) are getting away with what Thompson did at Rolling Stone in the '70s: making the story indistinguishable from their sensibility. That's not "serving the reader"--though Thompson's readers didn't seem to mind, and if they did, they knew what they could do about it.

Even Thompson couldn't get away with it for long. He may have run up scandalous expenses--though he sometimes exaggerated his misbehavior, it wasn't all an act--but mostly he got so notorious he took up all the air in the room. And after "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72," no sane politician would let him get close enough to journalize, though he remained friendly with the likes of George McGovern and Gary Hart, and exchanged cordial letters with Jimmy Carter and even Pat Buchanan. "Campaign Trail" is probably his best book: getting up close to the political process gave his outrage full play and made his lunacy seem rational by contrast. After that, he could be only an antic performer on his own--his druggy, boozy personal appearances (and his no-shows) made good copy for other writers--or a dyspeptic commentator from a distance. Still, he published 10 more books, including two collections of letters so masterly that they'll outlast everything but the "Fear and Loathing" volumes. His last writing, in an online "sports" column for ESPN, reads like the same old Hunter Thompson, but the right wing was running the country--again--he was in physical pain, and in retrospect his weariness seems obvious.

In a 2003 column, he went from the subject of his hip replacement into one of those rants whose joyously righteous anger used to belie their apocalyptic despair. "I am surprised and embarrassed to be a part of the first American generation to leave the country in far worse shape than it was when we first came into it," he wrote. "Our highway system is crumbling, our police are dishonest, our children are poor, our vaunted Social Security... has been looted and neglected and destroyed by the same gang of ignorant greed-crazed bastards who brought us Vietnam, Afghanistan, the disastrous Gaza Strip and ignominious defeat all over the world... Our Armies will never again be No. 1, and our children will drink filthy water for the rest of our lives... Big Darkness, soon come." If that's what he thought--he's not alone--and he hurt too much to fight any longer, he's well out of it now.