Hardcore narcissists/alcoholics/drug addicts generally don’t lead exceptional lives, unless you’re Hunter S. Thompson, the famed journalist and author. Then you’ve lived a doozy. You can read all about it in Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson.
A biography in interview format that runs from Thompson’s Louisville childhood to his 2005 death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at age 67, Gonzo is an invigorating if often bizarre portrait of the eccentric Rolling Stone writer.
Bizarre because, let’s face it, Hunter Thompson was a bizarre if highly talented guy. As one of the top literary icons of the ’60s, he invented his own brand of journalism—gonzo—with his uber-unique first-person style, but the personality behind his fearless individuality and nonconformity was legend and replete with endless gun-toting and shootings, violence, rages, creative frenzies, love affairs, massive daily drug and alcohol intake, and much mayhem and foolishness in general.
“For so many people…being around Hunter was exciting,” explains his first wife, Sandy Thompson. “And it was very dramatic…but he was a scary guy. Even some of his best friends, who were big, substantial, successful people, could feel that.”
The 100-plus family, friends, and colleagues interviewed for the book—including his one child, Juan, numerous former lovers, and scores of friends such as actors Jack Nicholson, Johnny Depp, cartoonist Ralph Steadman, reporter Ed Bradley, and Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner—let readers in on the man behind the bad-boy behavior. They rave about Thompson’s odd side, but also show why so many people loved him; it was, as one put it, “like being in a cult.”
“I got to know two Hunters—and I expect there were about twenty of them,” says actress Margot Kidder. “But women got to know a side of Hunter that men didn’t because of that Ernest Hemingway…competitive [thing]…God knows, I saw it—which was a very sad, sweet, lost little boy who was very eager to please.
“After spending the nights having tried to snort as many drugs…as possible, Hunter would come over the following day and just talk to me, being very contrite and concerned about my baby, and talking a lot about his son, Juan, and how much he loved him.”
Adds Sandy Thompson: “When I asked him once, long after our divorce, if things had turned out like he had wanted, he said, ‘Well, of course not,' and he paused and then gave me that look: “but it’s been glamorous.' "
Gonzo is long— over 450 pages—drags in places, and is sometimes hard to track, with all his nonfamous friends intersecting their stories. Tallied up, however, the book shows Thompson as far more than just a clever alcoholic/drug addict who got lucky in the ’60s celebrity sweepstakes: underneath his bravado and outlandish exterior he appears a warm, intelligent, and complex guy, full of sound and fury, signifying much at the end (Tom Wolfe claims, “I can’t think of any humorist in the whole century who could touch him”). He was as loyal a friend as a seriously troubled man could be, with large dollops of Southern charm, an unrepentant rebel from birth to death.
Hypocrisy was his enemy, and who can say they made it to the end without bowing to it, as Hunter S. Thompson apparently did. He lived his life exactly as he saw fit and he died exactly as he saw fit, suicide and all. His friends gave him his last wish: his ashes blown into space from a cannon while Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man (his favorite song) played in the wind.
As one friend puts it at the book’s end: “From now on when the phone rings at four a.m., it’s just bad news.”
Janet Kinosian, a Los Angeles-based journalist, writes for The LosAngeles Times, Reader's Digest, and dozens of other publications.