Like every other guy who wrote for a college newspaper in the last 30 years, there was a time I wanted to be the next Hunter S. Thompson, until I realized (as we all inevitably do) that being the next Hunter S. Thompson wasn’t merely a writing aspiration, but a lifestyle choice for which most of us simply didn’t have the pharmaceutical tolerance, even if we had the inclination (which — thankfully, in retrospect — I did not). So eventually I gave it up and concentrated on being the first me, which, besides being a far less crowded field, aspirationally speaking, also turned out to be the better writing choice.
Now Thompson’s dead; he shot himself in the head. At the moment I can’t decide whether this is shocking or, given his public persona, somehow appropriate. I will note he is the second writer I’ve admired to suicide in the last year or so, the other being Spaulding Gray, who took the plunge off the Staten Island ferry in a death that was also shocking yet somehow appropriate. I don’t claim that there’s any theme to this; lots of now-dead writers whom I admire didn’t suicide. One simply notices when they do. One also notices that the two were similar in a certain way — they told confessional tales of themselves doing things: Thompson in drugged-out, balls-out fashion, Gray in his more buttoned-up New England asides. Both were storytellers, which is a facet of writing I admire and which I don’t think gets enough attention these days. And I suppose you could say they both wrote their own ending of their own stories rather than waiting for life to do it for them.
I didn’t become the next Hunter S. Thompson, which I think we’re all grateful for, but did I learn anything from him? I did indeed. I learned a little hyperbole is a wonderful thing, although too much is, well, hyperbolic — timing matters in its use. I think it’s easy to enjoy his more whacked-out passages and miss how surgically he used them when he was on his form, which is why there are so many bad Thompson pastiches out there (even on the Web. Especially on the Web). I think it’s easy to miss his lesson as a journalist, which was that a good story isn’t always the one you’re supposed to be covering. He also reconfirmed to me something I’ve been taught over and over by my favorite writers: that you can get away with a lot as long as you tell a good story.
Those are all useful lessons, and I thank Thompson for them.