Reprinted from The Age, Sunday, November 15th, 1998.

Fear and losing it


HUNTER S. THOMPSON'S big things have always been raising hell and taking drugs, and though he is now 61, neither hell nor ill-health will stop him. He holes up in his cabin outside Aspen and goes at it hammer and tongs. He told me he would tell everyone I "took off my clothes and freaked the room out and demanded drugs and we were shocked" if I wrote that he took drugs in front of me, on the basis that I did not have any myself and that the Colorado police might read this article and arrest him, so if I state categorically that during the six hours we spent together he did not take some 20 lines of coke or smoke a marijuana pipe, I think you will get the picture.

Thompson only gets up about 8pm. Then, while his system is making Herculean efforts to overcome the punishment of the night before, he begins chucking more poisons on top: whisky, margaritas, coke, dope, all in quite staggering amounts. In latter years, a thin but steady stream of journalists has ventured to Aspen to nobble Thompson in his lair, and then the game is to see if he can drink and drug them under the table. He succeeds, obviously: he has had 40 years' practice and the constitution of an ox. If he gets bored with that, or thinks the interviewer is asking "dumb" questions, he has other ploys to liven up the long nights. Stories abound of Thompson setting hacks alight or setting off bombs beside them, or slipping hallucinogens in their drinks. He denies the last charge, but I know for sure that he shot at a colleague of mine called Robert Yates. A bobcat had molested Thompson's peacocks (which live in some splendor at the end of the sitting room), so Thompson took Robert on a hunt for it through the snow. When they couldn't find the bobcat, Thompson got a better idea: 'Let's get the Limey instead!' The other thing Thompson likes to do is drive journalists home after six or seven hours of this alcoholic and narcotic abuse. Naturally, this sadistic generosity tends to shrivel even the bravest heart. He flicks on his tape of dying jack-rabbits - they make a sort of shrieking repetitive scream - and veers nonchalantly from verge to verge. He literally drink-drives, clutching his tumbler of whisky during these heart-stopping expeditions. Thank God I visited in summer. Robert went in mid-winter, when Thompson raced at 150km/h over the icy roads. In the end, he demanded Thompson stop the car and let him out, which he did with poor grace: "Bloody English wuss."

The night I saw him, Thompson was really ill, although it was hard to tell where his flu ended and the general mortification of his body began. He had levered himself out of bed by the time I arrived at one in the morning, but was almost incapable of anything else. He huddled like an avalanche at the counter in the wooden sitting room at a sort of control centre - the television and video controls in front of him, the coke shaker below him, the hob behind, his collection of his books and articles about him at his right hand. He was wearing a shell-suit jacket and woollen socks with leather soles. When I began asking questions, he would rock back and forth heaving out great "errrs" through endless pauses before he gave an answer, if one was forthcoming at all.

You can see what Thompson looked like when young if you go and see the film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which is released this month and stars Johnny Depp as the drug-crazed hero. When I saw it, I couldn't understand why Depp spoke in such a bizarre fashion and had such odd mannerisms - until I met Thompson. Depp has caught him exactly, right down to receding dark hair and the little see-through cigarette holder. Yet the real Thompson still looks amazing. Like Dorian Gray, his excesses have not marked his face. Despite smoking heavily all his life, it remains unlined and craggy and handsome; his lips are exactly cut, and his eyes piercing. It was only when he stood, at five in the morning, that I saw the outer expression of the inner destruction (apparently, he can eat hardly anything except yoghurt and avocado, his insides are so annihilated). He shuffles bow-legged. His hands are swollen-knuckled and he angrily decried the failing of his body - "goddammit, my eyes keep tearing" - clumsily hitting away fallen ash from his cigarettes.

Some people, younger ones, don't know who Thompson is, but journalists are obsessed by him. He is famous mainly for his 1975 masterpiece, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a brilliant and funny account of visiting Las Vegas out of his head on various drugs - coke, dope, ether, acid - with his attorney. He was supposed to be doing a story about a police convention, but instead devoted himself to drug-crazed antics. (This is pretty much the story of his life.) The opening of Fear and Loathing still stands as one of the best ever: "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 and 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. And a voice was screaming: 'Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?'"

Thompson is also famous for his "gonzo" stream-of-consciousness journalism, his excoriating political articles - he is particularly proud of "getting rid of Nixon" - and his book about the Hell's Angels. He spent a year hanging out with them and several became close personal friends until the book came out, when they beat him to a pulp. He has always worked as a journalist (his early career is a long series of sackings and evictions), but his real ambition was to write the great American novel. He worships F.Scott Fitzgerald and particularly The Great Gatsby, which he has typed out and plotted graphs of in an effort to crack Fitzgerald's magic art.

The reason I went to Aspen was because Thompson is finally publishing his own attempt at a great novel, a book called The Rum Diary which he wrote 30 years ago, between Hell's Angels and Fear and Loathing. Fans will know of The Rum Diary because Thompson was always convinced he would be famous and kept copies of every letter he wrote. These letters, published last year in a collection called The Proud Highway , are dotted with references to what he now believes will be "the great Puerto Rican novel, at least". In 1961, it was "more than halfway done"; later that year, "it will probably hit the stands around September". In February the following year, he is "still working on The Rum Diary"; later he notes ominously that "if I can't get it off my head it will bury me and itself at the same time". The years wear on and the references continue, like waiting for Godot: "A book like that could make a man rich ... Now I can finish The Rum Diary with a bit of a grin ... I figure three or four more weeks and that's it ... This stinking novel ... It simply seems like a waste of time." He finally abandoned the book when Bill Kennedy, his editor on the San Juan Star who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his own novel, Ironweed , told him it was so bad it should only be published posthumously. Thompson has ignored this advice. On Wednesday week, the manuscript will finally burst into the harsh light of day.

What do I think of The Rum Diary? I think it is reminiscent less of Gatsby than Heart of Darkness (Thompson applauded when I said this), and I think it isn't the great American novel - it is very good, but it misses greatness. There is a curious flatness of tone, though it does gather pace. It is semi-autobiographical. The narrator is a journalist called Paul Kemp who befriends a photographer called Yeamon who has a girlfriend called Chenault. The book is about the sexual dynamic between the three. At one point, Chenault goes wild and strips in front of a crowd of men at a carnival, then sleeps with Kemp. Like everything in the book, it is described with understatement. "The idea," Thompson says, "was to make people wonder why this is happening."

He told me this hours after I had ventured into his den, a place called Owl Farm on the outskirts of Aspen. The first person I met was a sweet-natured girl with glasses called Heidi, who works for Thompson. Thompson was sitting at the kitchen counter on the phone. On the other side of the counter was his camp-follower Wayne, who has been making a documentary about him for the past 15 years - it shows no sign of being finished - and who most nights completes the unholy trinity. It was a very strange, cliquey scene. I couldn't work out if Heidi was Thompson's girlfriend or just his assistant, or what Wayne's relationship was to the two of them. All three were languidly bitching about the last posse of journalists who had visited. Apparently, the female photographer was pushy. "She walked round like she owned the place," Heidi complained. "We shoulda tied her up in the basement," growled Thompson. I was perched at a stool at the counter (where I was to remain through the long and dark reaches of the night) and, having gone to the loo down there, didn't relish the same fate. Perhaps, I thought, if I make myself very small they won't get angry with me.

I was also finding it increasingly hard to forget the details of Thompson's modus vivendi described four years ago in a biography by one E.Jean Carroll. She set out his daily routine: "3pm rise. 3.05 Chivas Regal with the morning papers, Dunhills. 3.45 cocaine. 3.50 another glass of Chivas, Dunhill. 4.15 cocaine. 4.16 orange juice, Dunhill. 4.30 cocaine. 4.54 cocaine. 5.05 cocaine ... 9pm starts snorting cocaine seriously. 10pm drops acid. 11pm Chartreuse, cocaine, grass. 11.30 cocaine, etc, etc ... 12.05 to 6am Chartreuse, cocaine, grass, Chivas, coffee, Heineken, clove cigarettes, grapefruit, Dunhills, orange juice, gin, continuous pornographic movies." Was I up to this? She also gave gory details of how he ravished her at Owl Farm. He set her to reading out his work while he diligently freed her breasts from their confines, all the while filming her with a camera.

The next thing I knew, a ring-bound folder and a margarita had been set in front of me and I looked up to find all three watching me expectantly. Wayne had turned on his video camera. I felt like crying. What the hell was going on? Who had sent me to this weird place? "Off you go," said Thompson. The three nodded at the folder. I realised I was to read from the galleys of The Rum Diary . Oh my God! Thompson undid a huge bag of white powder. I cleared my throat.

"I was awakened the next morning by a tapping on my door, a soft, yet urgent tapping." Thompson had his head down; Heidi seemed in a daze. "... Don't answer it, I thought, don't let it happen." Thompson coughed and banged his chest, lighting a cigarette. "More emphasis on the words," he said. "Slower." "... I sat in bed and stared at the door for a minute. I groaned, putting my head down in my hands and wanting to be anywhere in the world but here and involved in this thing."

I heard a sharp knock on the counter and looked up to see Thompson smiling. "Good," he said. He knocked again. "When you get to a bit you like," he says, "you knock too."

These three are so involved in the book, any one of them could have written it. They discuss the characters' motivation and past history with complete absorption. How many nights have they spent spinning these literary webs? At one point Thompson asks what Chenault is like and Wayne answers with authority. "You may be right," Thompson agrees. He leafs through the galleys like an 80-year-old with her wedding album. Fear and Loathing , he says, "was put together with the same agony and care as this thing. Trying to compress. Compress." Is he Kemp? "In some ways. In some ways Yeamon too. I did that deliberately." He lights a cigarette and knocks over a glass; Heidi begins massaging his shoulders. "I'll let you into a secret," he says, nudging my knee. "I married Chenault." She's based on his ex-wife Sandra? "Yeah, a little bit. Everyone's a little more extreme. Not too much. It was kind of an extreme life."

The Yeamon and Chenault characters live together in a beach hut in San Juan, just like Thompson and Sandra in the honeymoon period of their acquaintance. "We'd make love," Sandra has recalled. "There was this big screen and we were right on the ocean, the sand and the ocean, and I remember sitting up and we were in bed and I just thought I can't get any higher. If I were to die in the next instant I would be happy." She had two abortions during this time. "Had I had either of those children, Hunter would have had to have left me." Even the stripping scene in the book at the carnival echoes real life: Sandra was dancing at a carnival with another man when Thompson grabbed him by the neck. "There was this big scene ... Hunter took me upstairs and he locked me in." A friend summed up Thompson's attitude to marriage. "I can get laid as often as I want but my wife can't get laid by anybody but me."

It was during this San Juan period that Thompson worked like a dog to write The Rum Diary. But it never got done. This is Thompson's great paradox. He wanted to be a great novelist, but has always been a great journalist. You couldn't say Fear and Loathing was a work of journalism, but it is definitely not a novel: it is based on real events. I think Thompson needs this framework. ``I intended The Rum Diary to be the great American novel,'' he told me, ``but in a way this is a journalist route. I couldn't make up these characters. Everything in here, every line, is taken from a reality.'' That doesn't matter, of course, unless Thompson minds. I think he might. We had an odd misunderstanding when I said I thought of him as a bit of a Gatsby. ``I hope not,'' Thompson said. ``He died broke and only one person came to his funeral.'' Wayne cut in: ``You're talking about Fitzgerald. She's talking about Gatsby.''

I was told Thompson's health and concentration are too shot for him to be able to write much any more, which if true must be incredibly frustrating. His reputation has always rested on the twin pillars of hell-raising and great writing; to live one without the other must seem a bad joke. He told me that ``all I've ever been is a writer. I knew that was my highest talent ... Pretty much my only talent.'' Which would explain the nostalgia he displays over his past work, his loving dissection of The Rum Diary. Last year, his collected letters were published. This year is the turn of The Rum Diary. Next year Polo is My Life, another Thompson novel, is due. He is clearing out his cupboard.

The big question is why Thompson is publishing The Rum Diary now, when he always swore it would never be released in his lifetime. Was it because he thought he was going to die soon? There was a silence. ``It might be in the year 2000. Yeah. Another year ...'' Suicide, he said, had occurred to him. He went into a long fantasy about how he planned to fill his house with ``cold liquid glass'' so it was preserved forever, with him inside. ``And people can come and look through the front window.'' He added he had ``outlived my father. Outlived Neal Cassady. Quite weird. I didn't think I would live this long, so my behavior was tempered by that.'' His mother died eight months ago, aged 93. His youngest brother died of AIDS four years ago. His father, who sold insurance, died when Thompson was 15.

It was his death which set Thompson off to become ``an outlaw''. His mother became an alcoholic and slovenly, and Thompson couldn't handle it, according to childhood friends from Louisville. It is instructive reading their recollections of the young Hunter. All the girls were mad about him. The boys looked up to him as a leader. He constructed a car from a washing machine and rode about on it, when he wasn't breaking the law. His mother's comment pretty much sums up the situation. ``Hunter,'' she once said, ``was difficult from the moment of his birth.'' At 17 he was thrown in jail. ``Everyone else had money and got out and went to college. And Hunter was the only one, 'cause nobody could afford to pay his way. So he went to jail,'' recalls a friend. ``But that's really where he started writing. It was the beginning of his life all over again.''

About four in the morning we began talking about money. Thompson volunteered that he had got an advance of 400,000 for The Rum Diary. (Owl Farm is also worth a fortune; Thompson bought it before Aspen became fashionable.) I asked what he was going to do with the cash. He chuckled. ``Buy dresses for Heidi. No. Errr. I haven't thought of it. It isn't that much.'' He hadn't thought about it? I repeated disbelievingly. ``No.'' He clawed open a drawer beside me and clumsily pulled out a clutch of cheques. I saw two for $100,000. ``I'm sitting here with all these cheques,'' he said, turning them over distantly. ``I have to, er, go through this. I keep losing cheques. What do you think I should do with the money, Heidi? Give it to you?'' ``No!'' came from the depths of the chair. ``Yes, you do!'' ``No! I think you should spend it on all the things that make you happy, and in excess, so not just one shirt but 10.'' ``Shirts?'' ``Yeah.'' ``Shirts like Gatsby?'' ``You know what I mean! Like buy as much or as many of a thing as you like, rather than do what you always do, give it all away.''

Thompson was still thinking about the cheques. He said reflectively: ``What should I do with them? Give me an idea.'' Buy a house in the Caribbean, I said. Thompson nodded. ``That's something I am thinking of. Only because I'm tired of this goddamn greedhead ... you think I should cash these cheques or wait till the economy crashes?'' ``He should cash them,'' advised Wayne. ``You don't cash a cheque, then it's lost. That's the sad part about it,'' agreed Heidi. Thompson thought about this. ``I'd be embarrassed to walk into the bank and say: `I'd like to do something with this.' I don't know. I guess I should buy a gaggle of Filipino brides.'' If this was a dig at Heidi, it failed. ``If you'd like to do that, by all means!'' she cried brightly. ``We could do with the help!''

BY MORNING the atmosphere had relaxed. Heidi was endlessly hospitable, offering coffee and margaritas, and Thompson had become human, too, dropping his bad-boy act. He said he was a romantic. ``I'm a great aficionado of being in love.'' He was with Sandra for 18 years; they had had one son ``and seven miscarriages''. She left him in 1978. ``Juan had graduated from school. It was the empty nest syndrome. This is a hard place to live by yourself while I'm over every quarter of the f.....g globe.'' What frightened him, I asked. ``Frightens me?'' he echoed. ``I've answered that before ... I'm trying to remember what I said.'' Just tell the truth, I advised. ``Ohh,'' he groaned. ``Growing old and helpless.''

``We should go if you're to get that plane,'' said Heidi. She began gathering up his paraphernalia of whisky tumbler, woolly hat, coke shaker and wallet, ministering to him like a child. What was Thompson like, I asked. She looked over at him. ``Can I answer?'' ``Of course,'' he said. She thought. ``First word is very sensitive. Second is a person who is not mediocre in his sense of self or place, so that means that when you go somewhere you don't just go somewhere, something happens and he'll make it happen. I remember when I first met Hunter what I was most impressed with was his honesty. And what makes me most pissed off is when he's not honest.''

When is he not honest?

``When he's f.....g with ya!''

Has he done that with me?

``I haven't seen any of that. I've seen the honest side. He's been very, very quiet tonight. He's also extremely generous. Also he's brilliant. And he's also crazy as shit!''

We lurched through the dewy dawn. Halfway to Aspen, Thompson pulled up and looked toward the town, lights dotting the streets. ``I come here when I'm feeling out of things and look at the lights,'' he said.

I suddenly realised how cut-off he must feel. We got back in, and he turned toward me. ``You're quite beautiful, you know,'' he said. I thanked him and tried not to fidget. ``Are you a happy person?'' he asked. Not at the moment, I said. He asked why and listened carefully, clumsily squeezing my shoulder with sympathy. We pulled up outside the airport and smoked cigarettes in the clear mountain air. He was still thinking about my problems, asking questions and giving advice. God, I thought. This is really bizarre. He concluded: ``You've got to do something about it. Otherwise you'll end up looking like a prune.'' I kissed him goodbye with genuine affection. The soft heart of the enfant terrible. Here's to you, Hunter.


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