Hunter S. Thompson

I could write something about the death of Hunter S. Thompson, just to try to fit in, but so many others have eulogized him already. Then again, I sort of did that 12 years ago when this piece appeared in issue #3 of my own Plant’s Review of Books:

Hunter and the Haunted

Hunter: the strange and savage life of Hunter S. Thompson
by E. Jean Carroll
Dutton, 1993

Action Figure! The Life and Times of Doonesbury’s Uncle Duke
by G.B. Trudeau
Andrews & McMeel, 1992

There’s a time in the life of every young, male, writer who’s came of age since 1970 or so, when they desire openly or secretly to be "the new Hunter S. Thompson.” The first encounter is usually a drag off of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, then they graduate to the harder stuff: Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. Then it’s back to Las Vegas, just to get primed for that big novel they’re going to write in a marathon three-day session—bring on the amphetamines, the booze, the broads—this is the stuff Thompson’s work is made of, and the more you have, the better the book’s gonna’ be, right?

After a while, though, those young, male, writers get the picture that Thompson hasn’t really written anything since On the Campaign TrailLas Vegas included—that’s been any good or gone beyond the feeble-yet-ocassionally-punctuated-with-violence diary of a guy whose craft hasn’t gone anywhere in twenty years.

E. Jean Carroll, a frequent contributor to Esquire, has put together a schizoid biography of Thompson that, while effectively chronicling Thompson’s life through a multitude of interviews with family, friends, and associates, shows that the desire to emulate Thompson’s style is not a solely male preserve. In between some of the best-edited and well-constructed oral biography on record, Carrol chronicles the adventures of Laetitia "Tishy” Snap—a world-renowned ornithologist, who has arrived to study Thompson’s peacocks—in breathless Purple Prose:

What with the magnification of the bubbles, the underwater lights, the Jacuzzi vibrations, the heat, the steam, the marijuana, the Chartreuse and the acid, the Doctor’s doodle looked to be a half a yard long and as big around as the calf of my leg. With four or five cullions besides. "Miss Tishy,” said the Doctor, "Take off that sweater!”

What to do with a book like this, Gentle Reader?

As the liner notes, the introduction, the photos, and the text of Hunter remind us, Thompson was and has been the inspiration since 1974 for the character Uncle Duke in G.B. Trudeau’s Pulitzer-winning comic strip "Doonesbury.” Duke’s adventures in that strip have been collected into an anthology that covers his adventures as ambassador in Pago Pago and China, college-circuit speaker, Washington Redskins manager, secret agent in Iran, drug smuggler, zombie, proconsul in Panama, and bartender in Kuwait.

If the short story is allowed to stand as the exemplar of a form that requires taut, focused writing and precise dialogue, why not extend the form to include the comic?

"Okay, Springfield, if you aren’t the heat, who are you?”

"I’m from the National Rifle Association, Mr. Duke! And I was going to make you an offer…”

"The N.R.A.? Now, wait a minute, perhaps I was being a little hasty…”
"You…you know our work?”

"Know it? Hell, I’ve supported it for years! These are repressive times, Mr. Springfield!”

"And how! Even as we speak, new gun laws are being prepared by liberals and their ilk!”

"What? Liberals? Their ilk? You’ve seen them?”

"The erosion of freedom is not a pretty sight, Mr. Duke.”

And that’s merely one strip from nearly two hundred pages of three strips apiece. Setting, action, snappy dialogue. As with most of "Doonesbury” the pictures are almost incidental. A nifty five-inch figure complete with martini glass and Uzi comes bubble-packed with the book.

Where would Hunter S. Thompson would be today if it weren’t for Uncle Duke keeping his persona in the public eye on the editorial pages of hundreds of newspapers? Would he be some lonely guy on a ramshackle farm in Colorado, waiting for the royalty checks from Curse of Lono to arrive? In a perfect world, Duke would have been an unplanned collaboration between Thompson and Trudeau, with the fantasy and the fact mirroring the other. What do you do though, when the cartoon shows more life than the reality?

—Darrel A. Plant

And yes, I’ve still got both books.