If letters made sounds when we opened them, sounds expressive of their contents—if, from the freshly unsealed envelope, there rose a lover’s sigh, or an alcoholic belch, or a rasping cough of officialdom—the letters of Hunter S. Thompson would have released, I think, a noise like nearby gunfire. Like the crackle of some endless small-arms engagement. Pop, pop, pop, deep into the night.
I’ve been diving lately into the Thompson correspondence, via Douglas Brinkley’s superb two-volume edition (The Proud Highway and Fear and Loathing in America), because I’m looking for answers. Answers to what? How about: to the huge, throbbing interrogative that is America at the end of 2019. What is happening? Where’s it going? How do you live in it?
The mid-’60s to the mid-’70s—that was Thompson’s lean and scowling journalistic prime. “This fucking polarization,” he laments to one correspondent, “has made it impossible to sell anything except hired bullshit or savage propaganda.” But he was unstoppable. While researching his book about the Hells Angels, he rode with his subjects for about a year, getting a quasi-ritualistic stomping from them at the end of it; he was assaulted by Chicago cops at the Democratic National Convention in 1968; under wild duress, he composed the immortal hallucination that is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; he covered the Watergate hearings. And while he didn’t perfectly or lucidly see the future—didn’t see us, didn’t see now—he didn’t exactly need to, because in his head he was already here.
The Thompson of the letters is not especially likable. He is hard, compulsive, vengeful, nastily funny, and distended with the grandiosity of true desperation. An extraordinary proportion of the correspondence is concerned with money: claiming expenses, running from creditors, dunning and being dunned. American Express cancels his card; Thompson responds with sulfurous hauteur. “You bastards … You swine … My position today is the same as when this stupid trouble began. I’ll pay the bill if my card is reinstated.”
Friends and enemies are hailed in the same lewd, far-end-of-the-bar voice. “Dear Tom …” he writes to Tom Wolfe. “You worthless scumsucking bastard.” This is endearment. “Dear Sidney …” he writes to Sidney Zion, a co-founder of Scanlan’s magazine. “You worthless lying bastard.” This is abuse. (He goes on to tell Zion: “In ten years of dealing with all kinds of editors I can safely say I’ve never met a scumsucker like you.”) And if he starts to repeat your first name with menacing intimacy—“You interest me, George.”—you’re in trouble.
You could say that he had some very bad work habits. Or you could say that, over the course of a decade’s writing and reporting, he basically donated his nervous system to America. Pre-1974 Thompson was mostly on Dexedrine; after 1974 he was mostly on cocaine. Booze was a constant. Many of the letters have an early-morning-comedown feel: the whitening window, the excess of reality. “Why bother to make it right when nobody knows the difference anyway?” Drugs have their uses, but he saw with terrible clarity the bargain he was making, “willfully trading,” as he wrote to the Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, “time Now for time Later.”
He had a fastidious horror of the mob, be it a circle of leering bikers, a rank of advancing cops, or a throng of inflamed Republican delegates. In one letter he recalled watching Barry Goldwater address the Republican National Convention in 1964, and “actually feeling afraid because I was the only person not clapping and shouting.” Part of his brief, as he saw it, was to track this incoming American atavism. “The Shits are in,” he wrote after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. He loathed Richard Nixon, although he made a friend of arch-Nixonian Pat Buchanan (“We disagree so violently on almost everything that it’s a real pleasure to drink with him”).
So the fissures ran deep, in his time as in ours. From the core, from the White House, disruption emanated. My hack brain keeps wanting to write “the parallels are uncanny”—but that’s not it. These are not parallels; this is the same story. Thompson’s letters impart the lesson: Decades later, this is the same America—the America of the raised nightstick, the shuddering convention hall, the booming bike engine, the canceled credit card, and the impossible dream.