Jim Fisher was to have drawn his annual birthday
cartoon for me this week, but was struck down at the last minute by acute
pancreatitis. He is now recuperating in the hospital, all heppped up on goofballs
with a tube up his nose. Luckily I had already sstarted work on a cartoon
inmemory of Hunter Thompsoon, so I just finished it. This is a revamped version
of an old cartoon of mine, "Faith vs. Works: the Debate Continues."
Thompson and Nixon really were "old football buddies," as Thompson
described it. The then-candidate Nixon gave Thompson a ride to the airport
in his limo on the condition that they not discuss politics, and they ended
up talking pro ball. Thompson had always figured that Nixon just feigned an
interest in the game to make himself seem like more of a regular guy, but
it turned out that Nixon was a serious fan, enthusiastic and erudite. He said
the biggest about campaigning was that it interfered with the season. They
were reminiscing about a particular game played years earlier, and Thompson
mentioned a spectacular pass made to a little-known rookie. After thinking
for a minute Nixon suddenly slapped Thompson's knee and exclaimed, "That;'s
right! The Miami boy!" He not only remembered the play, and the receiver,
but which school he'd played for. After that, throughout Vietnam and Watergate,
whenever Thompson tried to divine the motives and strategy behind Nixon's
every bizarre, draconian, and self-destructive move, he always believed that
football was the key to understanding his perspective. I find it kind of nice,
touching, to imagine these two old adversaries peacably enjoying a game and
their respective poisons (scotch or bourbon for Nixon, pot and Chivas Regal
for Hunter) throughout eternity.
It will perhaps come as no surprise to students of my prose style to learn that H.S.T. was a formative influence on my writing. His wild, perfect swoops between high diction and poetic Kentucky profanity made him the best American political polemicist since H.L Mencken. My copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was inscribed with the words, "This book twisted and ruined Tim Kreider's life." It was the funniest sustained piece of prose I had ever read, and a very bad influence. I had to be careful about re-reading it, since each occasion would inevitably trigger a dangerous bender that could last for weeks. The most important things I learned from him were that the rules of "objective journalism" were what allowed people like Nixon to slither into power; that the truth is never told between the hours of nine and five; and, perhaps most importantly, that breakfast can serve as a spiritual anchor in an otherwise stressful, toxic, and structureless life.
I met the man once, at the book release party for Kingdom of Fear thrown by The Paris Review in George Plimpton's apartment. I'd gotten myself invited along by a friend of a friend. George Plimpton was there, afffable and erudite and looking one hundred and thirty years old. Tom Wolfe showed up in his silly white suit. I told an editor for The New Yorker that all of their cartoons were improved if you simply replaced every caption with the words, "Fuck You." She promised to spread this insight at the magazine. Hunter Thompson showed up several hours late, very unsteadly on his feet, and held court in the living room, drinking a glass of whiskey and flirting with pretty young girls. Late in the evening we all crammed ourselves into the TV rooom to watch Hunter's interview on Charlie Rose, which had been taped earlier in the afternoon. The whole room laughed sycophantically every time he mumbled incoherently in response to a question. The specatcle struck me as distasteful and sad, a man passed out on his laurels. Recognition and praise matter more than most artists like to admit, but they're still a poor substitute for productivity--like trying to live off of whiskey instead of food. Thompson was as serious about his craft as any writer, and his literary ambitions were the highest; he used to transcribe passages from The Great Gatsby verbatim on his typewriter just to feel, in his own nerve endings, what it was like to write prose that fine. He must have known that his best years were long behind him. I never spoke to him that night.
Or at least that's what I thought until a week or so later when my friend Myla told me, "So I heard you talked to Hunter Thompson!" "Who did?" I asked. "Me?" It emerged that in fact I had. Myla's friend, Oliver, who had taken me along with him, reported that I had smoked pot, something I rarely do for what will become obvious reasons. Now that I heard this, I did seem to remember accepting a small pipe and saying, tentatively, "I don't usuallly do this...". This was the last thing I remembered. But no, wait--I also had a memory of Hunter Thompson's personal assistant, whom I believe he later married, telling me, as if for the hundredth time, "Yes, Hunter has your comic books and he will read them." Apparently he and I talked at some length in a language no one else present could understand. I hung around as if hoping to be invited into the limo when he left but they drove off without me. I have no memory of any of this. This is somewhat disapppointing but seems entirely appropriate.
News of his suicide shocked and upset me. I haven't been as profoundly sad over the death of a stranger since Stanley Kubrick died unexpectedly in 1999. I took a bus to the nearest bar and ordered a shot of Chivas Regal and toasted his memory. Requiescat in Pace. I sat in the bar until two with my folder of papers and pens in front of me, trying to come up with an appropriate cartoon I could e-mail in by press time. But nothing came to me. I blew it. I never got the metaphorical image to express my bleakness and despair, this feeling that all hope was now gone. Thompson once wrote that Kennedy's assassination "broke the back of the American dream." I'm sure his reasons for suicide were personal, not political, but still, it seems to augur badly for us all. The canary in the coal mine is dead. George Bush gets re-elected; Hunter Thompson kills himself. If he gave up, what are any of the rest of us hanging around for?
My friend John Quinn wrote me from France today. John and I lived together for several weeks at some vaguely recalled point in the early nineties in Baltimore, when we drank heavily, did many drugs, talked incessantly about Art and Politics and the Big Questions, and listened to the soundtrack to "Where the Buffalo Roam" over and over again. John fled the country ahead of the curve, over ten years ago. Today he writes:
Yesterday our dog deposited the fat, stinking
corpse of what we think was a beaver before our front door. The stench was
enough to make you vomit at fifty feet. My friend David and I shovelled it
into a bag wearing clothespins on our noses, and then had to drive it away
at top speed with the windows down in the freezing cold. For some reason this
event struck me as perfectly representative of the general karmic drift of
things these days. And now Hunter. Perfect, just perfect. Fuck it all.
I fear it may be time for a re-reading of Fear and Loathing.
New Book Tour News (updated 3/03/05)