This piece was co-written by Justin Getka and Daniel Stuelpnagel
You’re feeling dehydration and chest pains, shortness of breath—you know your metabolism can’t benefit from any more painkillers, but the pain has taken over. You keep fighting and sweating and wondering if time has stopped, if the pain will never end.
Spill it out, unedited and filled with rage.
Hunter S. Thompson is real.
At least he was until 2005 when he blew his brains out with a .45-caliber pistol, at age 67, having decided to leave the party a little early.
When he began to write the million words that would be his legacy to the journalistic pantheon of the 20th century, there were no passwords, there was no screen, no spinning icon software-loading glowing display or operating systems, there was just the holy typewriter in all of its mechanistic servitude, waiting for the writer to attack and kill.
It’s 4:33 am, too late for a drink and too early for more painkillers.
Gonzo means gone, as in real gone, as in departing from reality on a southbound train for Nutsville and arriving at the writer’s imagination just in time for a load of true fiction, tilted rakishly askew and laced with as much falsehood, fantasy, libel and slander as structural integrity would allow, then condensed, edited and rebuilt like a big-block V8 until it’s just cohesive enough to both fascinate and astonish the editor.
Who would light another cigarette, sign off with a sigh, and instruct his secretary to mail Thompson a check for another thousand, but no more, no matter how much he begged for an advance. Readers loved it. Thompson became a cult figure and was alternately thrilled and repulsed by his own iconic status.
He raked politicians and other greedheads over the coals with staccato phrases, syncopated rhythms and straight-ahead delivery, creative yet style-book-compliant wordplay, outrageous lies, insults and drug-and-alcohol-fueled rants.
Even as he filed dozens of articles for Rolling Stone and other national magazines and news organizations, Hunter was convinced that he had the talent and imagination to create and develop fiction, but building a coherent piece of work with which he could be satisfied eluded him, until it didn’t.
Read Hell’s Angels and The Rum Diary and everything in between.
The pain ebbs for ten or fifteen minutes every hour, just long enough to make you think it’s almost over, only to return with even greater intensity, you writhe in pain, cry out in shock, frustration and defeat, the doctor said ‘if the pain gets worse, just take more pills,’ hour after hour the pain gets worse so you keep taking more pills, hallucinating and sweating and haggling and waiting for it to be over.
Then you’re sitting under a beach umbrella on a blazing hot sunny afternoon next to a cooler with ice, gin, soda, limes. Escape for an hour from the shrouds of paranoia and veils of drug-addled intensity.
Thompson fought not to be edited by anyone but himself, he would file a piece over and over with increasingly minor alterations just to get his point across, exhausting one editor after another right up to the deadline, at which point they would capitulate, because he had won again, by virtue of stubbornness, passion, talent, and eventually, fame.
One facet of the legacy of Hunter S. Thompson is the sometimes unbearable need to communicate, to want to know, to haggle with the shreds of reality that are visible to us, even as we perceive a subtle alternate dimension behind the veil, it makes us want to know what the fuck is going on in the world, and makes us wonder how we can make ourselves worthy of it.
3:00 pm on a Monday and Thompson’s already had three more drinks than he had planned at this hour, at an empty bar on Baltimore Street.
The only one on the block with no dancers, no entertainment other than the bartender who keeps on about how he’s been there for 33 years but it sure doesn’t feel like it, how he doesn’t know where the time has gone. It’s not what you want to hear when it’s your 33rd birthday and you’re already not thinking straight, if 33 years is your whole life and someone remembers 33 years ago like it was yesterday, what does that mean for you?
We have one more and head north, to somewhere with more people and maybe some food. I’ve already loaded up on bread and meat and cheese but we’re going into battle tonight and there’s no telling when we’ll be able to replenish our rations.
I changed my mind about the food and opted instead for a tall whisky and coke with a beer. From there we move south again, some kind of event with my name on it.
Walking into the place is like being thrown into a hall of mirrors, one that someone dropped a bomb on. I step over to the bar and order a tall rum and grapefruit. Then I wake up on an unfamiliar couch wearing an unfamiliar shirt. My tongue tastes like red wine, scotch, and an ash tray.
Where did all those mirrors go? I question as I try to catch my reflection in a pair of broken yellow-tinted sunglasses lying next to me on the floor. I look around in my own head for clues.
A yellow man-shaped bird on painkillers wailing nonsense to a room full of me. Jefferson Airplane playing across the room; were they there? Was I?
After 33 years my body has finally acquired a valuable survival mechanism: it shuts down after too much of anything, crumpling into a silent, immobile pile on the floor that can’t do or say anything too terrible.
Whatever point I had wanted to make to all these people was lost to me forever, and this is a blessing for everyone. Maybe it was a good party. Maybe that’s all it was.