BEYOND GONZO

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Love him or hate him, fear him or loathe him, Hunter S. Thompson left an indelible mark on American literature, one that, as much as some critics think it needs a good scrubbing, will likely persist -- as rebellious and brazen as the writer himself.

Thompson, who was found dead at age 67 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in rural Colorado on Sunday, was one of the earliest and best-known practitioners of New Journalism, or, as he preferred to call it, "Gonzo Journalism."

He was known for putting himself into the stories he covered, dropping any pretense of objectivity, and for seeking a truth that ran deeper than any mere set of facts.

Whether it was riding with the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang, as he did in the 1960s, or going decadently astray while on assignment, a tale he recounted in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson served as participant, observer, central character and the wordsmith who wove it all together -- opinion, invective and any drug-induced hallucinations that occurred along the way included.

In doing so, he became a counterculture hero, an idol to free spirits everywhere and an enigma to journalists who, even while questioning his veracity, envied his free rein.

"He became kind of like Hemingway in the way that his fame begat more fame," said friend and Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Kennedy. "He had a kind of rock-star fame writers don't usually have."

Kennedy, who said he spoke to Thompson two weeks ago, said the writer's suicide was surprising in some ways, but not in others.

"It doesn't surprise me that he did it, though I was surprised he did it now. But it suits his style, he was very into guns, and he had talked to me once about how he was following the Hemingway arc," Kennedy said, referring to that writer's suicide.

Thompson -- a collector of guns and member of the National Rifle Association -- apparently shot himself in the head with a .45-caliber handgun at his compound in Woody Creek, outside Aspen.

An eccentric sort, Thompson listed his political affiliation as "anarchist." In 1970, he ran for sheriff in Aspen as a member of the "Freak Power Party." In 2000, he slightly wounded his assistant while trying to shoot a bear on his property. He liked to practice shooting at targets, which, Kennedy said, included some bearing the likeness of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

Kennedy met Thompson in 1959, after rejecting his application for a job.

Thompson had answered an ad for a sports editor at the San Juan Star in Puerto Rico. In the letter he sent Kennedy, who was managing editor, Thompson lamented the state of American journalism and came across as arrogant and volatile, Kennedy said.

The two traded letters, and "a few months later, [Thompson] turned up for a drink," Kennedy said. "I never hired him, but we got to be friends."

Thompson went on to work at a bowling magazine, then as a freelancer, writing "vivid, probably half-fictional pieces," Kennedy said.

"I think he is a terrific writer, but his journalism is really fiction. He's a first-rate writer with a place somewhere, but it's hard to say where that place would be, because it involves the fusion of two forms," said Kennedy, executive director of the Writers Institute at the State University of New York and author of the Pulitzer-winning novel Ironweed.

"He wasn't trying to mask anything," he added. "Anybody with any intelligence could read it and know it was made up. ... What he did was in the service of a greater truth, and he really did something that nobody else had done."

Kennedy last saw Thompson a year and a half ago. "He was pretty down because of back pain. He didn't even want to talk about it. He was taking a lot of stuff to keep the pain down."

Thompson had broken his leg in Hawaii a few years ago and gotten a hip replacement, said Kennedy. Despite problems after the surgery, Thompson remained a hard-living, hard-drinking practical joker, still showing up at book signings under the influence, still doing and saying outrageous things.

"He was a very funny guy and very crazy. He was genuinely crazy," Kennedy said. "He didn't exaggerate about his life, he lived an exaggerated life."

Born in Louisville, Ky., the son of an insurance agent, Thompson got into trouble with the law as a youth for drinking and vandalism, once spending 60 days in jail.

He enlisted in the Air Force in 1956, and served as a sportswriter for an airbase newspaper. He received an honorable discharge in 1957.

He spent the next five years in Puerto Rico and South America, working for several newspapers.

While his longest magazine stint was at Rolling Stone, Thompson was also a correspondent for the drug-culture magazine High Times and a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner. Most recently, he had been writing a column for the sports Web site ESPN.com.

His books include Hell's Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, The Great Shark Hunt, The Curse of Lono and Generation of Swine.

While panned by some critics as reckless, irresponsible and self-absorbed, Thompson's writing is hailed by others as vivid, brilliant and original.

"There is no one quite like him," Saturday Review contributor Joseph Kanon once wrote, "and we turn to [him] not for 'objective' reporting ... but to watch an interesting sensibility engaged in high drama. ... He seems a rare individual voice in a world of homogenized telecasts."

So big was Thompson's persona that it spilled off the printed page and into the movies. He was portrayed by Bill Murray in Where the Buffalo Roam in 1980, and Johnny Depp in the 1998 film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He served also as the model for the character Uncle Duke in the Doonesbury comic strip.

His work is taught in journalism schools, but not at all of them, and not without controversy.

"This is a real debate we get into every semester -- is this really journalism?" said William McKeen, chairman of the journalism department at the University of Florida. "Some think it's idiotic to teach him."

McKeen, 50, who wrote a book about Thompson in 1991, is a former journalist who has followed Thompson's writing throughout his career. In McKeen's literary journalism class, Thompson, along with Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote and others, is required reading -- and a student favorite.

"He saw through a lot of the pretense between reporters and the people that they cover. He removed all of the usual artifices and spoke directly to the reader in a casual, friendly, almost conspiratorial tone," McKeen said.

In some ways, Thompson, with his disregard for facts and highly personalized accounts, was "blogging" long before there was an Internet.

But he will go down in literary history as more than a blogger, and for more than his wild-living image, McKeen said.

"His greatest work is overshadowed by this persona of the drug-crazed lunatic reporter," he said. "But he's a much better writer than people have given him credit for."

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