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Letting Thompson just be Thompson

2 biographies seem to let him cast his own legacy.

The Life of Hunter S. Thompson

By Jann S. Wenner

and Corey Seymour

Little, Brown. 496 pp. $28.99

By Anita Thompson

Fulcrum. 112 pp. $14.95

Reviewed by Edward Champion

Hunter S. Thompson, known for his fierce and fearless writings on politics, blew his brains out two years ago. There was speculation that his suicide came from the depressing residue of the 2004 presidential election results. There was speculation it came from Thompson's declining health. But few observed how close Thompson's exit was to his literary hero's, Ernest Hemingway.



, an oral history with no shortage of speculation, we learn that Thompson copied whole sections of Hemingway on his typewriter and went to Hawaii to catch a huge marlin "just like Hemingway," an incident later used for

The Curse of Lono

. In his Hemingway biography, James R. Mellow recounted an incident in which Wallace Stevens, unimpressed with the Hemingway legend, joked at a party, "By God I wish I had that Hemingway here now. I'd knock him out with a single punch." This resulted in a drunken brawl between the two men. Hemingway was indeed knocked down into a muddy puddle. Six years later, Stevens proposed that Hemingway speak at a Princeton poetry lecture.

This tendency to let Hemingway be Hemingway mirrors the remarkable tolerance that Thompson's friends had for his behavior. An Aspen neighbor recalls Thompson threatening his son with a cattle prod, but in the same breath declares how "he was always great to Juan." His landlord confesses to receiving irregular rent checks, but admires Thompson's motorcycle and is ordered to try high-grade mescaline.

Thompson's first wife, Sandy, is commanded around and has abortions that Thompson refuses to pay for. And yet, with pals, Thompson is willing to lend all the money he has and regularly dole out football bets. A keg of beer promised to the Hell's Angels upon the sale of Thompson's first book is sadly not honored, although Thompson does offer the keg to Sonny Barger, fresh out of jail 25 years later.

Like Hemingway, Thompson had a machismo that wouldn't quit. He ingested drugs and drink, often ordering "five or six Bloody Marys and twelve or fourteen lines of coke" for breakfast. His room service orders read like the demands of a junta. He had lungs and a liver to rival Charles Bukowski's and a high pain threshold, but was tremendously sensitive about depictions that didn't stem from his frenetic adrenaline. He came close to suing Garry Trudeau for the Duke character in


, until an old roommate informed him, "This guy makes you out to be friendly and nice, basically. You're not."

Thompson's writing was frequently dazzling, as many of the snippets interspersed throughout


attest. But the arduous task of enabling Thompson to meet his deadlines was taken up by a revolving door of mostly female assistants, many of whom became his girlfriends, and surprisingly patient editors. Assistants read his work to him to cheer him up and get him writing, but often "couldn't breathe without getting yelled at." In Thompson's later years, Jann Wenner "couldn't get him writing strong or sustained pieces, long or short, for Rolling Stone" - this, for a 10-grand check on a 1,500-word piece. The carrot at the end of this short stick was the promise of Thompson's writing and his dazzlingly idiosyncratic charisma.

Anita Thompson, Hunter's young widow, is conspicuously absent from


. In a New York Daily News interview, Wenner claimed that she had "an exaggerated sense of who she was in terms of Hunter," leaving one to wonder if Wenner's selective criteria leave any room for figures who don't happen to be writers or celebrities. Nevertheless, despite Anita Thompson's elision, she has offered

The Gonzo Way

, a slim volume intended for a younger audience that is written to resist pleas from unspecified handlers that Thompson's legacy must be "reserved strictly for the few elites who understand the value of his work in 'literary history.' "

Unfortunately, Anita Thompson has very little to add to the public record. The word


is tossed about in liberal doses. But this fun involved acquiring novelty items to "ratchet up the elements of fear in his 'experiments' on people" and shooting up propane tanks. That fear and experiments, prioritized over joy or healthy iconoclasm, would be used in relation to fun is a telling indicator that the "we" so strenuously championed as "the most important word in politics" was likely ignored in favor of first-person solipsism.

In Anita Thompson's defense, some of this madness probably had to be experienced firsthand to be appreciated. But one comes away from these volumes feeling as if Thompson's friends and loved ones were used and even subsumed by Thompson's need to print his own legend. At a distance, his writing was edgy, gleefully subversive, and full of great life, but, in flying closer to the flame, one begins to bid a farewell to charms.