I am finding blogging inspiration hard to come by lately, so here’s an Off-Topic Tuesday post. It first appeared at The Daily Aneurysm seven years (!) ago today, one day after Dr. Thompson committed suicide. I’ve made a couple of edits to correct rhetorical tics that bother me now.
I heard it on NPR before the crack of dawn this morning: The Doctor apparently killed himself yesterday behind the walls of what he always called his “fortified compound” near Woody Creek, Colorado. While others might speculate about the reasons for his act—mostly to make up cautionary tales of danger out of his taste for drugs, alcohol, and firearms—I won’t. I am not one to begrudge somebody their right to check out if they believe it’s time.
(Many stories today have contained the phrase “single self-inflicted gunshot wound.” I’d like to think Thompson would be amused by the absurdity of that careful phrase. In my experience, suicides rarely have to reload—and especially not someone with Thompson’s affinity for and facility with heavy weapons of all sorts. If he decided it was time to go, then he was going, and he wouldn’t make a bad job of it.)
However: I can’t remember the last time the death of someone I didn’t know personally hit me as hard as Thompson’s has today—first of all, because he was a favorite writer of mine, inventor of gonzo journalism, that melding of fact and fiction that seemed to get at the truth of things nevertheless. . . . Take for example the opening paragraphs of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive. . . .” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”
Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process. “What the hell are you yelling about?” he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses. “Never mind,” I said. “It’s your turn to drive.” I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red Shark toward the shoulder of the highway. No point mentioning those bats, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough.
The first two sentences are reportage, then the thing takes flight to somewhere else entirely. And its voice is pure Doc; if you ever heard him speak, you can easily imagine him sitting across from you, telling you this. . . .
Thompson’s death hurts, too, not just because I enjoyed his work and admired his style, but because I enjoyed his thinking, too. I can’t truthfully say I have tried to live my life by his philosophy, for compared to his life, my existence has been pretty tame. (“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone,” he once said, “but they’ve always worked for me.”) However, some of the things he said made a great deal of sense to me.
Take for example, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” I’ve always read that to mean if you’re going to thrive in a weird world, you have to be even weirder. In my own way, I have tried to become (and remain) as weird as possible for as long as possible. Maintenance of your personal weirdness quotient used to be a sort of lifestyle choice—now it’s a necessity, if you intend to navigate each new day without cracking. That life finally got too weird even for Dr. Thompson is truly frightening, because if he couldn’t handle it, what chance do the rest of us have? Weirdness was a subject with which Thompson was intimately acquainted—and so he was the perfect journalist to cover the final third of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st.
. . . [For a while] I featured a [series of quotes] from Thompson at the top of [the Daily Aneurysm]. They were taken from a piece that first appeared on ESPN.com shortly after the 2000 presidential election, but I didn’t know of it it until 2003, when it appeared in his book Kingdom of Fear, which I read cover-to-cover while stranded in O’Hare Airport the day the Iraq war began.
We are living in dangerously weird times now. Smart people just shrug and admit they’re dazed and confused.
The only ones left with any confidence at all are the New Dumb. It is the beginning of the end of our world as we knew it. Doom is the operative ethic. . . .
Look around you. There is an eerie sense of Panic in the air, a silent Fear and Uncertainty that comes with once-reliable faiths and truths and solid Institutions that are no longer safe to believe in. . . .
Guaranteed Fear and Loathing. Abandon all hope. Prepare for the Weirdness. Get familiar with Cannibalism.
One of Thompson’s favorite adjectives was “savage.” In this, the most savage era living Americans have known, we need all we can get of writers who see behind the savagery and cut through to the truth at the bone of it. The Doc could do it, but who the hell’s going to do it now, I don’t know.