Death of a comic

William F. Buckley

3/1/2005 12:00:00 AM - William F. Buckley
If what was before the house was just the formal news bulletin, a famous person who had left Earth for other bournes, then OK, let him go with conventional solemnities. I once attended funeral services at which the rabbi didn't remember the name of the deceased, so that he mourned the passage of Priscilla, remarking the good she had left behind in her lifetime -- never mind that the lady who lay in the coffin was called Jane; never mind, the incantations were generic.

But Hunter Thompson would never be confused with anyone else, and when his wife was led through the police cordon to his room, she reported to the press that "he did it (fired the .45-caliber pistol) in his mouth," leaving "his face beautiful. It was not grisly or gruesome by any means. He lived a beautiful life."

He didn't. What he did do was inspire devotional encomiums from people who included blood relatives (my son), and superstar mentors (Tom Wolfe). Wolfe spoke first of his stylistic achievements. He wrote "in a style and a voice no one had ever heard before." And Wolfe found in Hunter's life an originality perversely appealing. It was "one long barbaric yawp, to use Whitman's term, of the drug-fueled freedom from and mockery of all conventional proprieties." What he wrote was "'gonzo.' He was sui generis." "In the l9th century Mark Twain was king of all the gonzo-writers. In the 20th century it was Hunter Thompson, whom I would nominate as the century's greatest comic writer in the English language."

Writing in The New York Sun, John Avlon spoke of Thompson's determination "to puncture the pretenses of the powerful with ruthless humor, a loyalty to deeper truth, and a hatred of hypocrisy. Beneath what could be called amoral behavior there was in fact an inflexible moral code. The intensity of his writing unsentimentally highlighted the real stakes of this life." What deeper truths?

Henry Allen of the Washington Post wrote that "People will forgive almost anything of writers who can astonish them and make them laugh." What was it, in Thompson, that we were forgiving? Is that question answered in Allen's sentence that "despite his rants about the onanistic squalor of journalism, (Thompson) had the bearing of an adventurer striding out to the very edges of madness and menace"? Laughable stuff?

Thompson had a gift for vitriol. All -- everything -- was subsumed in his exercise of that art. Consider one entire paragraph on Richard Nixon. "For years I've regarded (Nixon's) very existence as a monument to all the rancid genes and broken chromosomes that corrupt the possibilities of the American Dream; he was a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad. I couldn't imagine him laughing at anything except maybe a paraplegic who wanted to vote Democratic but couldn't quite reach the lever on the voting machine."

We were asked to believe (by the San Francisco Chronicle) that in reading Thompson we are reading the work of a hero of an entire generation of American students. Concerning that claim a little skepticism is surely in order. After all, an exhibitionist can be spectacular, and even lionized, in the Animal Houses. Hunter Thompson elicited the same kind of admiration one would feel for a streaker at Queen Victoria's funeral. Here is a passage from Thompson, in which he seeks amusement by recounting the end of a long day with a visiting British friend, identifying himself as "the journalist":

The journalist is driving, ignoring his passenger (the visiting Brit), who is now nearly naked after taking off most of his clothing, which he holds out the window, trying to wind-wash the Mace out of it. His eyes are bright red and his face and chest are soaked with the beer he's been using to rinse the awful chemical off his flesh. The front of his woolen trousers is soaked with vomit; his body is racked with fits of coughing and wild choking sobs. The journalist rams the big car through traffic and into a spot in front of the terminal, then he reaches over to open the door on the passenger's side and shoves the Englishman out, snarling: 'Bug off, you worthless faggot! You twisted pig-(expletive deleted), all the way to Bowling Green, you scum-sucking foreign geek.'

One can be sorry that Hunter Thompson died as he did, but not sorry, surely, that he stopped writing.