February 23, 2005

A rare essay worth reading on the WSJ's OpinionJournal.com site: Tom Wolfe's obituary for Hunter S. Thompson:

He proved to be one of those tall, rawboned, rangy young men with alarmingly bright eyes, who more than any other sort of human, in my experience, are prone to manic explosions.

For a younger generation, Michael Richard's Kramer on "Seinfeld" is the model of the tall, rawboned, rangy man with alarmingly bright eyes.

We were walking along West 46th Street toward a restaurant, The Brazilian Coffee House, when we passed Goldberg Marine Supply. Hunter stopped, ducked into the store and emerged holding a tiny brown paper bag. A sixth sense, probably activated by the alarming eyes and the six-inch rise and fall of his Adam's apple, told me not to ask what was inside. In the restaurant he kept it on top of the table as we ate. Finally, the fool in me became so curious, he had to go and ask, "What's in the bag, Hunter?"

"I've got something in there that would clear out this restaurant in 20 seconds," said Hunter. He began opening the bag. His eyes had rheostated up to 300 watts. "No, never mind," I said. "I believe you! Show me later!" From the bag he produced what looked like a small travel-size can of shaving foam, uncapped the top and pressed down on it. There ensued the most violently brain-piercing sound I had ever heard. It didn't clear out The Brazilian Coffee House. It froze it. The place became so quiet, you could hear an old-fashioned timer clock ticking in the kitchen. Chunks of churasco gaucho remained impaled on forks in mid-air. A bartender mixing a sidecar became a statue holding a shaker with both hands just below his chin. Hunter was slipping the little can back into the paper bag. It was a marine distress signaling device, audible for 20 miles over water.

...Yet he was also part of a century-old tradition in American letters, the tradition of Mark Twain, Artemus Ward and Petroleum V. Nasby, comic writers who mined the human comedy of a new chapter in the history of the West, namely, the American story, and wrote in a form that was part journalism and part personal memoir admixed with powers of wild invention, and wilder rhetoric inspired by the bizarre exuberance of a young civilization. No one categorization covers this new form unless it is Hunter Thompson's own word, gonzo. If so, in the 19th century Mark Twain was king of all the gonzo-writers. In the 20th century it was Hunter Thompson, whom I would nominate as the century's greatest comic writer in the English language.

Wolfe's being a little too kind to the dead: Thompson's reputation rests on one short masterpiece, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, one solid, innovative, but not all that funny book on the Hell's Angels, one major article on the Kentucky Derby, bits and pieces of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, and other miscellaneous matter. In terms of prime pages, that's not much more than John Kennedy Toole's Confederacy of Dunces by itself, or, for that matter, the funniest 400 pages excerpted from Wolfe's body of work. Compared to the lifetime output of Wodehouse and Waugh, well, us colonials aren't in the big leagues.

Still, Thompson did write Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and nobody else ever before wrote anything like it in the history of the English language, and maybe nobody will ever again.


By the way, are you as sick as I am of gun nuts like Thompson and Kurt Cobain (whose three biggest hits off Nevermind all mention guns) shooting themselves and leaving a horrifying mess for their loved ones or servants to find and clean up? I know you think it's your Second Amendment right and all that, but, please, show a little consideration.

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