COMMON THEMES AND THEIR ORIGINS IN THOMPSON'S WRITING
by Christine Othitis
Like most authors, Hunter S. Thompson enriches his writing by drawing from lifetime experiences, sometimes to a very high and personal
degree. Many of his favourite themes, such as violence, sports, politics, sex and drugs, dominate his writing.
Especially interesting is the fact that these same themes took root in his childhood, and they are all subjects he enjoys
writing about. Using several biographies, outside works and his own works, the history of Thompson's writing will be explored.
The greatest determining factor in Hunter's life was that he was born in Kentucky during the Depression (sources differ on the date - 1937 or 1939).
Kentucky is the great magnet that attracted all the things that interest Thompson. It was one of the last states to have travelling sex shows. His birthplace,
Louisville, still hosts racing's greatest gem, the Kentucky Derby. This city is also home to over twenty-one breweries and cigarette factories.
Kentucky, a Southern state, has a rich history of folklore such as vanished Indian tribes and monsters, as well as connections with hate
groups. Most important of all, Kentucky was one of the states that remained neutral in the American Civil War.
"Hunter is very Kentucky. Kentucky is a very violent place" (Carroll, p24). Walter Kaegi, one of Hunter's childhood friends, told E. Jean Carroll.
Indeed. As children, Hunter and his friends played with rocks, bullwhips and air rifles in the woods behind Kaegi's house, terrifying their mothers.
They all had a particular fascination with the Civil War; their favourite game was "North-South". Thompson was general of the Virginia Second Cavalry and his base was
Fort Lee. Walter, when he was ten, hired Hunter to write about these mock battles in his neighbourhood newsletter, the Southern Star. This obsession stayed with
Thompson into adulthood; even today he still wears a Confederate-style hat and maintains that "pure revenge" (Carroll, p25).
A hyperactive child (Carroll, p19), Hunter tended to use his energy for violent and destructive purposes, such as bullying and destroying property. comment on energy-murray.
His parents, Virginia Ray and Jack, were both alcoholics, and because of Hunter, the family was looked down upon in the neighbourhood. Jack, an insurance salesman,
was a believer in corporal punishment and practiced it frequently on his two oldest sons, Hunter and Davidson. "He had a great outlook on life" (Carroll, p23) Thompson says of his
father, who was 42 when Hunter was born and 57 when he died suddenly of a cerebral embolus. This was just the end to the long and slow toll that myasthenia gravis, a rare neurological disorder,
took on Jack. Thompson was greatly sorrowed by his father's death, and many of his friends felt that because of this, he became more malicious. Most of his friends suspect that he still suffers from a "father/son hurt" of some kind (Carroll, Whitmer). His youngest brother,
Jim, was about a year old at this time and Hunter loathed the attention Jim received (Carroll, p53).
After her husband's death, Virginia drank herself into stupors so many times that her mother, Memo, came to live with them
for awhile. She had a calming affect on all three brothers, but still Hunter was angry and once or twice pushed Virginia down the couple of stairs behind
the kitchen (Carroll, p52). On several occasions he destroyed the telephone. It was also during this period that Hunter began to drink himself.
When reading Thompson, one can still feel the anger he has for certain institutions and just things in general. Possibly, it was the
aura of violence that surrounded the Hell's Angels that impelled him to write about the "big hairy thugs" (Thompson, 1966) with their "stripped down
Harleys". Kaegi remembers how Hunter had a way of throwing "people off balance physically and psychologically" (Carroll, p22) when fighting, but this did not quite work with the
Angels, when on Labour Day 1966, he "pushed his luck a little too far" (Thompson, 1966, p346) and was badly stomped by four or five Angels" who seemed to feel he was taking advantage of them (Thompson, 1966, p346). It is interesting to note that there are at least five different accounts of this incident.
Of course, it could have also been Thompson's sense of right and wrong that lead him to writing about the Angels, trying to correct their unfair image that had been parlayed through traditional press outlets (Johnson, p132). Whatever the reason,
/books/ha/>Hell's Angels: The strange and terrible sags of the outlaw motorcycle gang was a instant hit and has been reprinted over 35 times.
His house in Woody Creek, Colorado, is a testament to his fondness for guns. At the time of his divorce, there were about 22 rifles and handguns (Carroll p200) He likes to use them to, much to the annoyance of his neighbours, who have alleged that he has shaken the foundations of their houses (Carroll, p216). His favourite is the Magnum .357 and .44 and makes a constant appearance in his writing, such a as in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Generation of Swine.
Thompson's short temper can be set off by anything, but it is the state of the world that particularly riles him and fuels his writing. Since he was a good organizer and a leader as a child, this is most likely why Hunter gets so upset at politicians and world leaders. Often, these are the people who have the power to make changes and inspire others. Hunter arrived on the national scene just in time.
In the late sixties, there was such a rift between the government and young people that almost nothing could be done to fill it. Society had no central motivation, but Thompson did, and in Hell's Angels, points out what was wrong with the United States (and this could be applied to any country)., such as it's lack of strong leadership, as well as a government that could not change with the time, or would listen to its people. For example, Thompson blames old guard society for the sense of people's anomie, "of being cut off, or left out of whatever one was presumably meant to be in" (Thompson, 1966, p327). Thompson himself is a misfit of sorts, but such a strong individual that he cannot possibly
conform to any given standards . For example, his first and only wife Sandra Dawn said, "he would not be forced into giving gifts" (Carrol, pxx). This is another reason for Thompson's popularity - he is so unique that he in uncategorizable.
"Sex was really downplayed. Really downplayed," says Jim Thompson (Carroll, p29). Knowing this, it seems interesting that he became so deeply involved in America's "adult industry" (this is a two-fold observation - read on). Even from a young age, girls were extremely attracted to Hunter, and he is probably one of the few writers today with known groupies. His involvement in the adult industry
began (like so many other things) at a young age when he and some friends from Presbyterian camp went into the neighbouring Shelby County Fair and saw their first stripper. "She was in a tent and not terribly attractive. She was old, or seemed old to us little boys...she did remarkable things with Ping Pong balls and cigarettes," Gerald Tyrell remembers (Carroll, p32).
The other friend who went with them, Lewis Mathis, adds, "(P)eople would start throwing money at them. we didn't have any money. so Hunter tried to steal some off the stage" (Carroll, p32)
After his divorce in 1979, Thompson had even more opportunities to womanize, and as he was doing some work for Playboy, was given the money, room and exposure he needed. When he moved to San Francisco in the mid-eighties, he worked at the O'Farrell Theatre, owned by the Mitchell brothers, and built up a loyal following there as well.
It was in the same period of time that two major changes came about in Hunter's writing, seemingly because of sex. The first is that he stopped myhthologizing other people and started mythologizing himself. The second was that his writing started to contain more sex and how it related to politics (i.e., Gary Hart) where as his earlier writing was not.
When I say "sex", I don't mean graphic encounters or anything of the sort. It is just that his previous works were fairly sexless. I know that sounds funny, considering the scenes in Hell's Angels where the bikers openly talk of sex and homosexuality, or even in Las Vegas, which touches on sex shows, rape and "get(ting) weird" (Thompson, 1971, pxx).
This question of sex was raised by William F. Buckley in a review of
The Great Shark Hunt where he comments that HST is a man with "no apparent interest in sex" (Whitmer, p255). Thompson's own sexuality has been called into question, however it is more likely that his personality and actions doom most of his relationships. This is an unfair criticism by Buckley; most writers
do not engage in writing about their sex lives or the such.
However, the criticism must have had some effect on Thompson, as in his next book, The Curse of Lono he writes of natives bring him women, and f**** them out there on the black rocks" (Thompson, 1983, p158). While in the opinion of Whitmer that "here was sex", "f***" implies a rather crude form of lovemaking.
Louisville is a sporting kind of city. It is the home of the first baseball bat factory - everyone has heard of the infamous "Louisville Slugger". And of course, there is the Kentucky Derby, which some claim is the only excitement Louisville ever gets, and for only two and a half minutes each year at that. HST's father was a great fan of its old baseball team, the Colonels. Hunter is remembered as a gentleman athlete, playing everything from baseball to basketball, most of which he organized. This did not last into high school, however. The football players at Athenaeum roughed him up, helping him decide that it would be better for him to join the writing club instead (Whitmer, p45), which was a family tradition of sorts anyway.
Other than the Southern Star, he began sportswriting of the Eglin Command Courier, at 17. He was sent to the air force base as part of his release from jail, having been arrested for robbery. "He made up the craziest stories! A little thing would happen in gym and he'd make a great big story about it! When I left Eglin he said I was going to be in the Boston Celtics" (Carroll, p60). This is from friend Gene Espeland, who later became a basketball coach. Thompson continued his sportswriting career after his early honourable discharge. His writing at Eglin was not popular with those in charge, and he had often accepted writing jobs outside the paper when he was not supposed to. Considered a morale problem, he left Eglin to continue his sportswriting career for El Sportivo, a South American bowling magazine (more on that in the nest essay).
Thompson dropped sports as a theme for a while in the sixties, but picked it back up again in the seventies. Las Vegas was intended as a 300 word caption for Sports Illustrated on the great Mint 400 motorcycle race. Instead, it turned in to the cult classic as it is known today. Hunter was also picked up by the short-lived Scanlan's, a sporting magazine. While with them, he wrote his famous pieces about the Kentucky Derby and Jean-Claude Killey. Later, his sights turned to boxing, and he covered (and did not cover) many Muhammad Ali bouts, one of which is chronicled in George Plimpton's Shadow Box.
The great uniting factor between sports and politics for Thompson is that they can be gambled on. In Generation of Swine, a collection of his San Francisco Chronicle columns, he tails his books - the odds are given for various politicians and tales of wild betting binges in Florida, such as a hilarious serial saga of bets between a mysterious man named Parker, the golden Cadillac HST wins, then sells, only to be tracked down in Arizona by Parker wanting it back.
Few of his friends ever thought that Hunter would be a writer, or even gain fame for that matter. One of the things he likes about sportswriting, and his own invention, gonzo journalism, is that "you have the freedom to use really aggressive words. There's a whole breadth of vocabulary" (Thompson, 1990, p190). He admires F. Scott Fitzgerald's word economy (O'Rourke, p70),
and set a goal of 50, 000 words for Las Vegas. Other writers he admires are Ernest Hemingway, William Coleridge and William Faulkner. Donleavy's The Ginger Man is also a favourite book.
Most of Thompson's writing is semi-, if not totally, biographical. His two early novels, Prince Jellyfish and The Rum Diary, have yet to be printed, though both were excerpted in Songs of the Doomed. Prince is the story of Wellburn Kemp, a frustrated young journalist from Kentucky who is continually rejected by newspapers or regulated to hack writing jobs. Obviously, it is about Hunter when he worked for small town dailies and when he was a copyboy at TIME. The Rum Diary was written in Brazil and Puerto Rico. Through an unnamed journalist (presumably HST), it is about him and his friends
who one night become heavily involved in the Puerto Rican night life. This passage from Chapter One is similar to several passages in Las Vegas:
- "To go to a cocktail party in San Juan was to see all that was cheap and greedy in human nature. What passed for society was a loud, giddy whirl of thieves and pretentious hustlers, a dull sideshow full of quacks and clowns and Philistines with gimp mentalities. It was a new wave of Okies, heading south instead of west, and in San Juan they were kingfish because they had literally taken over" (Thompson, 1990, p74).
It is hoped by many Thompson readers that the rest of these two early novels as well as the rest of a third book, The Silk Road, reprinted in Doomed will be finished and released soon. The first two were rejected by publishers for various reasons; however, Hunter persuaded a secretary at Random House to return The Rum Diary to him. Unfortunately, Hunter has become typecast as a journalist and not as a serious writer.
"Lying was the thing he did best. He did it with total cool and confidence," another friend, John Burton, says (Carroll, p11). Which is true. Thompson is a master storyteller and he even admits - "Lies, it was all lies. I couldn't help myself" (Thompson, 1990, p143). Thompson presents his material in a forwardly believable way; he has a talent for telling tales, some of which sound unbelievable, but really can't be substantiated. For example, in the article "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved" (Thompson, 1979), he tells of taking the Welsh cartoonist Ralph Steadman to meet his brother Davidson and his wife. The incident happened, but not in Kentucky and certainly not with Davidson. It took place in Woody Creek, and Ralph was drunk.
It was a family friend, Bonnie Noonan, whom Ralph had drawn the ugly caricature of (Carroll, p123).
Another grossly exaggerated story was "The Death of Russell Chatham", which originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and reprinted in Doomed. Without identifying himself as the author, Thompson wrote a convincing obituary about the Montana artist,
that he was killed while fly-fishing, having been hooked by some anglers in a boat who beat him to death as they had mistaken him for a fish. While most people got the joke, it apparently had some art collectors completely fooled.
Thompson's own versions of events has swayed back and forth over the years. For example, he sometimes says that the hitchhiker in Las Vegas was real; other times made up. It is this constant pendulum of truth-telling or exaggeration that reminds readers of how often their government, politicians and press flip flop on certain stories and issues.
Underneath all the craziness and macho bravado, there is a tender side to Thompson. Many of his friends, such as Sally Quinn, see Hunter as a sad and very melancholy person. Quinn also remembers how devoted he was to his wife, and how they remain close friends. "I loved the zany, the outrageous and everything else, and I though that was amusing. But what really appealed to me about Hunter was that he was a gentleman," (Carroll, p158) Quinn says. Likewise, he completely endeared himself to the family of Patricia Gaines (wife of author William Gaines), when
he chose their home to use as a HQ for the New Hampshire primaries in 1972. Even now and then his writing reveal a person who is terribly indignant over the state of the world and little pieces, "pearls of wisdom" to his fans, of thoughtful analyzation appear in all of his books, such as the last few chapters of Hell's Angels where he explores why and how the world is changing, and why Americans are at such a loss to explain why. A prophetic book, Thompson traces the unwillingness of Americans to change and cope in an increasingly technological society. Thompson is
a writer who cares deeply about his country and would like to see it live up to its ideals of pride, truth and justice.
The United States is a nation founded on individualism and freedom. In many sense, HST embodies the American psyche,
and it is little wonder that he writes about all the themes present in American (or any country's history for that matter),
such as violence, sex, sports and politics. Thompson's writing is a product of this psyche as well as himself.
[FIRST ESSAY] * [SECOND ESSAY] * [THREE ESSAY]