In a tragic instance of poetic justice, writer Hunter S. Thompson's suicide last week made sense. He was a man who lived under constant siege, as if incoming missiles were a real and daily threat, one without which he could not exist. He courted violence, in part because, as a sinner extraordinaire, it was his due.
As a journalist preoccupied with the dark side of life, and as a peculiar celebrity, Thompson aggressively sought opportunities to duck and cover. In 1991, he came to a Baltimore club, Max's on Broadway, where he allowed himself to take imbecilic questions from a lubricated audience that chanted "Gonzo! Gonzo!" and treated him as if he were a curiously volatile relic from an earlier time.
Swigging Chivas Regal and banging a trick ball-peen hammer that resounded like shattering china, Thompson obliged by rambling though an illogical monologue that included his thoughts on the Persian Gulf war, CNN and Armageddon.
"I believe the end is upon you. It has to come some time, you know that," said Thompson, who then read from Revelations, punctuating its finality with the hammer.
When he shot himself last Sunday, it seemed as if Thompson had decided that his own Judgment Day had arrived.
For those who associate Thompson with debauchery and a reckless disregard for the truth, it may seem strange to think of him as a moral bellwether. But there is a thread in American journalism that directly ties Thompson to Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather and other Puritan authors whose Indian captivities and remarkable providences (those unusual natural occurrences or human aberrations noted by colonists as signs of God's sanction or wrath), were not only early American news accounts, but cautionary tales for potential backsliders.
Thompson's Fear and Loathing books and other works were also inspired by a fundamental sense of right and wrong. Like his journalistic ancestors, Thompson used the captivity narrative to write copiously of the wages of his sins. Instead of producing searing accounts of being held against his will by Indians, though, he wrote about being held prisoner by the Kentucky Derby, by Las Vegas, by American politics: all institutions with decadent and desperate underbellies.
As his own moral barometer, Thompson plumbed the depths of depravity as he succumbed to orgies of drink, drugs and a harrowing cruelty toward others - all in order to see how far he could fall. To illustrate the flawed American character he presented himself as "Exhibit A." Although he had a stunning capacity to survive his "captivities," Thompson also conveyed a sense of profound shame (not always sincerely) for his excesses. The institutions that enabled his debaucheries to occur could not escape his wrath, either.
The same unrest that drove people to the streets to protest the Vietnam War and segregation drove writers like Thompson to practice a new form of journalism that would diagnose the maladies of American society.
Thompson did not relinquish the American promise of a land swelling with opportunity that his journalist forebears first embraced. His quibble was with the way those opportunities had been twisted and thwarted, not with the opportunities themselves.
To sway others, it wasn't enough to quietly infiltrate American society and assume the polite tones of standard journalism. Like the protesters, Thompson and other New Journalists had to be noisy outsiders who jimmied locks, banged on doors and occupied the offices of the Establishment.
Thompson tossed out the usual tools of journalism - the deceptive notion of objectivity, summary leads, and the static style of news writing in general - to get at truths that could not be discovered through a recitation of facts. By plunking himself in the middle of his stories, mastering the devices of realism and hyper-realism, and peppering his narratives with slang, slurs, and curses, Thompson tapped into a truth that transcended logic and delivered it to his audience of potential backsliders.
In doing so, he brought journalism full cycle, back to the accounts of the Puritans, from whose fiery, sensational, hair-raising tales Thompson took many a page - and updated for the new American frontier:
"We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like 'I feel a bit light-headed; maybe you should drive ... ' and suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us. The sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas."