As a teenager, I was afraid of him. Then in my 20’s/college years, I was leery of the fandom surrounding the whole Gonzo ego bit. Then, when I was in my early 40’s, he blew his brains out. I could now trust him. I read most of his books and the bios too. Eventually, I could do Gonzo as good as Johnny Depp.
And then in my mid-40s, other people burned me out on him. No one around me could understand the greatness or complexity of this man. They only told me about his flaws. There were many. So when this book came out five years ago, I passed on it. I wasn’t ready. Recently, I saw a clip of Hunter criticizing Jann Wenner that was so honest and brutal, yet caring, and I knew no one living could talk like that. So I am ready.
I am the same age as Hunter’s son, Juan. I had a very close, but at times difficult, relationship with my dad. He was a tough guy who worked manual labor and fought in two wars. But, he was nothing like Hunter. I suspected Hunter would be someone to avoid at all costs, because he was mean, angry and always boozed up or high on cocaine and other drugs. And my instincts were right. In my 20’s, I read his second (and most famous) book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and didn’t get it. On the first page I missed his use (maybe?) of hyperbole when he listed his drugs for the trip. I thought no one could use all that weird mix of drugs, and why would they want to? Obviously, I didn’t KNOW Hunter.
So after he died, I read his first book, Hell’s Angels, and loved it. In the beginning he quotes heavily from Nelson Algren’s Walk on the Wild Side, a favorite of mine. Toward the end he gets into his Gonzo style serendipitously in order to meet a deadline. So I reread Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, got its Mark Twain humor, and realized that Hunter had written a perfect, unique book. When I have insomnia and know that I won’t sleep, instead of fighting it, I read Vegas in its entirety. It is so funny.
This book? Wow, there is so much. Hunter was an absent dad, off chasing fame, drugs, adventure, and other women. So that led to a broken marriage, then divorce, fights, then more madness. A megalomaniac with drug abuse and a large collection of fire arms is not a good combination. But he could write like no one else from the mid 60’s until his habits caught up with him by the Reagan era. He still wrote until the end, and there were flashes of brilliance at times, but he wasted himself and his talent by the 80’s.
Juan states from the start that this book is a memoir and it is. Thus, we learn about his life and the way Hunter interacted in it. There were angry hurtful times but by the end there was forgiveness and growth, and even love. Much like my own father and I, Juan and Hunter were poles apart. But there were things that they both loved, such as guns. But even with that common interest they were very different, Hunter being the irresponsible one. He even accidently shot one of his many female assistants.
And eventually, Hunter’s vices caught up with his body too. I didn’t know specifics of this and his suicide on February 20, 2005 at age 67, but I had always wondered. Juan has an entire chapter titled “The Last Day.” Hunter had planned this suicide and wanted all of his immediate family there. He had been through two brutal operations which he had to face the problem of being an alcoholic in a hospital. So like one of his top heroes, Ernest Hemingway, Hunter shot himself at home. His body and mind had given out and he lacked the will to fight it any longer.
There is also a long section about Hunter’s return to Louisville for a celebration of him put on by Ron Whitehead in 1996 that included Johnny Depp, Warren Zevon, and Douglas Brinkley. It was a wild ruckus, and I don’t regret making the choice to not attend.
Sure, Hunter was a wild, out of control, drug addled freak. But I don’t need my literary heroes to be saints. His first three books are as good as any writer’s top three books. And they are all different from each other. So forgot the image, and read this book to see how complex a man he was. Then go read his stuff from 1967-1979.
– Reviewed by Tom, Main Library