Squandered talent

Samuel Johnson observed that a man “becomes a beast to get rid of the pain of being a man.” Suicide produces the same result on a permanent basis, which may explain why Hunter Thompson resorted to a more powerful palliative, after years of employing the first painkiller.

Thompson’s final creative act was to turn his death into a sort of literary allusion. Like Ernest Hemingway, who preceded him in destroying his literary talents by dedicating decades to substance abuse and macho bluster, Thompson put a bullet through his head, leaving it for others to clean up the mess.

Some hint of the cult of personality that surrounded Thompson can be gleaned from the creepy tributes that have issued from Aspen in the days since his death. After Thompson stuck a .45 in his mouth while sitting in front of a typewriter that held a blank sheet of paper, his friends and family gathered round the corpse to sip Chivas Regal and reminisce.

Thompson’s widow says he would have wanted it that way.

That, unfortunately, is all too easy to believe. All writers are narcissists by nature, but Thompson turned self-absorption into a cottage industry. He was endlessly fascinated with himself, and he assumed everyone else was as well.

Thompson’s life illustrates the most dubious aspects of the romantic myth of the artist as a man to whom the normal rules don’t apply. Because he was a talented and amusing writer, we were supposed to either forgive or celebrate his boorishness, his cruelty, and his attempts at self-destruction, while tactfully ignoring the steep decline in his work that marked the last 30 years of his life.

The power of that myth is evident in the coverage of his death. Thompson chose to shoot himself while his 6-year-old grandson was in the room next door. Almost all the reports of his death ignored the extreme selfishness and irresponsibility of that act.

Will any of Thompson’s work survive? After re-reading some of his best-known pieces, I tend to doubt it. Despite superficial biographical similarities, any comparison with Hemingway is inapt.

Nothing Thompson wrote is anywhere close to being in the same league as “The Killers,” or “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” or “The Sun Also Rises,” or, if we limit the comparison to journalism, “Death in the Afternoon.”

In any case the comparison is unfair. Hemingway was a great writer, who helped change the way English is written. Thompson was a talented journalist posing as a drug addict, who eventually became a drug addict posing as a journalist.

Nevertheless, Thompson’s life was more than a cautionary tale of counter-cultural excess. Works such as “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” while over-praised, did perform a useful service.

When he contemplated the Kentucky Derby, or Las Vegas, or the 1968 Democratic convention, or the popularity of Richard Nixon, Thompson recognized what so many journalists at the time felt, but were rarely drunk enough to say in print: that there was something dark and disturbing at the core of many of the apparently innocuous slices of Americana they had been assigned to cover.

Thompson loved Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” and like the hero of that story, he suspected that the methods of his profession – specifically, those designed to produce descriptions of a bloodless and sober reality – had become unsound. His own methods for escaping that reality squandered his talent, and left behind what was in some ways a wasted life.

Still, it’s something to have had talent to squander.

(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)