When studying for the part of Raoul Duke in Terry Gilliam’s film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Johnny Depp stayed in Hunter S. Thompson’s basement in Owl Farm, the ‘fortified compound’ deep in the Colorado mountains that was Thompson’s retreat and writing base. Depp shot with Thompson’s guns, wore his clothes, immersed himself in the older man’s lifestyle. Lying in bed, smoking, Depp stubbed out his cigarettes on a wooden stand. Then he noticed his ashtray had begun to smell funny. He asked Thompson about it. ‘Oh, God, that’s where it is.’ The seasoned Gonzo journalist was delighted to be reunited with the barrel of gunpowder that had been missing from his store for some time.
Living with Thompson was dangerous as well as exhilarating. The reader encountering his work is, in a metaphorical sense, in the position of Depp: learning a role, flicking sparks on a powder keg that could at any moment tear them apart with a deafening blast.
But Thompson’s risky, explosive writing was not quite as eccentric as it seems. Yes, Thompson wrote in an unforgettable Gonzo style: his phrases always detonated distinctive sparks. But the danger of his work, its capacity to reveal the predatory darkness behind seemingly banal events, was a distillation of an increasingly dangerous outside world, that since the assassination of Kennedy in 1963 had become the focus of Thompson’s fear and loathing – the despair he felt at a nation slipping into the hands of venal, two-faced, ruthless hustlers, who would do anything to defend their own interests, even up to starting wars. Writing on the afternoon of 9/11, Thompson nailed the consequences of the atrocity with uncanny accuracy: ‘a Religious War, a sort of Christian Jihad, fueled by religious hatred and led my merciless fanatics on both sides’.
Thompson saw Afghanistan and Iraq happen, then shot himself in 2005. We know the how, but will never understand why. Many around him at the time believed that his final act stemmed from a carefully weighed decision. His ex-wife Sondi Wright, though, thought that Thompson was nowhere near being on top of events at the time: in Alex Gibney’s 2009 documentary Gonzo, she expresses her deep regret at his suicide, as the world today needs more than ever the voice of a Thompson on top form.
Indeed. What would Thompson have to say about the USA of 2012, that after a financial crisis brought on by greed, incompetence and the deregulation permitted by successive compliant administrations, finds itself with a faltering economy, heavily in debt to China, Japan and Brazil, but still possessing the deadliest war machine in the world, that it is busy exercising on several fronts? What would Thompson, who once pledged in an election manifesto to grass over the streets of Aspen and let animals graze there, have thought of a nation in denial about the poison it was spilling into the ecosystem? We can only read his work, make an informed guess, and wait for the detonation.
– William Stephenson, author of Gonzo Republic: Hunter S Thompson's America.
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