The Last of Hunter

Two last notes and I think I'm done with Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, unless he comes back to life and kills himself again.

First, the San Francisco Chronicle did a decent obit on him today. Jay Johnson, the former Examiner news editor I mentioned last night, figures in the Chronicle's account of Hunter's work for the San Francisco papers. Here's Jay's part of the story:

Chronicle Executive News Editor Jay Johnson, who also edited Thompson's columns when he wrote for the Examiner, said Thompson could not dictate over the phone, so he filed his stories page by page over the fax, sending multiple revisions as the two spent many hours throughout the night and into the morning "wrestling the column to the ground."

"Nobody was as much his editor as his sounding board. He needed to talk it out and get reaction to it. It was not the average creative process," Johnson said.

One morning as deadline neared and they were still working it out, Thompson, who was known to have an affinity for controlled substances, told Johnson, "Our real drug of choice is adrenaline."

Johnson said Thompson was easiest to work with when he was covering a presidential campaign. But he was often just "riffing," Johnson said.

He fondly recalled one night when Thompson told him how he had tried to cheer up a friend who was scheduled to go in for back surgery. He took a bunch of explosives out to the backyard and stuffed them into his Jeep. As the hood flew into the air and the Jeep exploded into pieces, the two friends realized what they had projected into the sky would soon come back down.

"They are like dancing around with this shrapnel coming down," Johnson said.

Johnson told him to write it down and that became Thompson's next column.

Johnson said it seemed that part of the reason Thompson enjoyed writing his column for the Examiner was that he had a burning desire to be plugged in. In the days before the Internet, Thompson turned to Johnson to give him the latest news.

"By calling in, he could ask what was on the wires. He would ask me to read him stuff. That way he could be involved in the business," Johnson said.

And second: I've been hearing and reading some of the "Hunter went out on his own terms" and "Hunter never wanted to die in a hospital bed" stuff that's out there. I'm not buying the nobility or courage some seem to see in his suicide. God, or who- or whatever, rest his soul. But over the last few years, I've seen several people who were close to me die with what appeared to me to be real strength and forebearance — yes, even when they died in hospital beds. I've watched others go on with their lives despite the kind of loss I could hardly bear. From where I've watched, one thing they all seem to have in common is a belief that every day they got was a gift of some kind, if only a chance to see what would happen next, even when they saw the course their stories were taking. We're surrounded by people going through the same thing every day, really. Nearly silent. Barely seen. Never celebrated. But what courage.

More Hunter

Just two things:

One, his most recent column at ESPN.com: “Shotgun Golf with Bill Murray.” I didn’t even know he was writing for ESPN.com. It”s actually an entertaining and at times lucid piece.

Two, just checking on Technorati to see how the blog people are taking the news. I’m surprised by how much comment there is, from the outright sappy (“Hunter, we hardly knew ye” — apparently meant seriously) to the self-consciously neo-gonzo (“Too wierd [sic] to live, too rare to die“) to the actually original and humorous (like the blogger who asks, “What kind of God lets Hunter S. Thompson shoot himself, but is cool with allowing Dan Brown [author of “The da Vinci Code”] to go on living?”).

Like I said, surprising. I assumed Thompson’s act was so old, inebriated, and stuck in the glory days of Nixon-McGovern that folks had moved on. Maybe “Doonesbury” and the movies (both the Johnny Depp one and the Bill Murray one) endeared him to the post-me (me, not Me) generation.

Hunter Thompson

From The New York Times site, where I first saw the news (The Rolling Stone site, which still lists Thompson as “national affairs desk,” doesn’t have an item posted yet):

DENVER (AP) — Hunter S. Thompson, the acerbic counterculture writer who popularized a new form of fictional journalism in books like “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” fatally shot himself Sunday night at his Aspen-area home, his son said. He was 67.

“Acerbic counterculture writer who popularized a new form of fictional journalism.” Well, the AP’s got to play it straight. But I don’t think a description like that begins to touch what Thompson did. What do they mean, “books like ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”? Fact is, there’s nothing like it. And what Thompson did wasn’t to popularize a new form of fictional journalism. He invented a new, sort of quasi-journalistic literary genre that challenged readers to figure out just what in it might reflect the writer’s experiences. The exercise was more to distill and intensify the reality he experienced. But no more stabs at explication and criticism from those ill-suited and unqualified to do it, like me.

The person I immediately thought of upon reading this news was Jay Johnson. Jay was one of the news editors at The San Francisco Examiner when Thompson was writing his column for the paper, and it often fell to him to be Hunter’s “editor” (he was just “Hunter” around the newsroom, though he was never there) — the person who would sweat in increasingly unquiet desperation as Hunter’s Sunday night deadline came and went. Hunter often (perhaps always, when it came to The Ex) communicated by fax. Back in the mid-80s, when Hunter’s Ex saga began, fax machines would accept and print out long scrolls, not neat single pages. And Jay would be the one who would get Hunter’s scroll. The column was typewritten, but it was usually preceded or accompanied by a long, scrawled personal note to Jay or maybe just an off-the-cuff diatribe to set the tone. Long after Hunter stopped writing the column, he’d still fax off his late night screeds to Jay. I sure hope he kept them. They’d be a minor (or, who knows in this world? — major) treasure.