Thursday, I attended a reading by Juan Thompson, son of journalist Hunter S. Thompson, at Powell's City of Books. His memoir, Stories I Tell Myself, spans his life growing up in Aspen, Colorado, up to his father's suicide in 2005. While not a biography, it is very much the story of the elder Thompson told through the life of his son, a proposition the author admits is wildly subjective, steeped in the fog of memory.
He read a series of letters between him and his father, who he has always called Hunter, from 1982, when he traveled to Boston for college. Juan was soft spoken and reserved. He looked like a well dressed professor (he works in IT in Denver). He began writing the book soon after the death of his father. Why? To complexify the myth of the renegade drug addict journalist chasing the wildest true stories, adrenaline, and his own weird sense of justice. To tell the story of a man of extremes beyond the cartoonish specter that delights and horrifies our American psyche. A major theme, of course, is relationships between fathers and sons, how they move and change from childhood, through adolescence, into the Fall of middle age. He writes about attempts to relate closely in adulthood, the brief successes, the resignation to gaps unbridged.
It is also the story of a man suffering the results of a lifetime of excess, a story he believes his father would want him to tell as honestly as possible, but only now that he's gone. Deterioration into immobility, dependence, and most painful of all, the loss of the ability to write.
Afterward, he took questions from the small audience.
"From the letter, it sounded like he really believed in your ability to write. You said you resisted that. Did you feel like you bonded with him in some way by writing this book?"
He described gaining new insight into his father's life by writing. How he could finally understand the way he would procrastinate for days, weeks, before finally setting down to write, and how seriously he would take it. This was Hunter's purpose, Juan maintains. More than being a father or a journalist, or a an object of fame, he wanted to be a great writer.
"Did you use an editor?" "I was surprised to discover what editors have become. A combination of recruiter and project manager. The just don't have the time anymore, to edit. I hired someone myself to do that because at a certain point, I couldn't quite see it clearly."
"Did he ever meet Garry Trudeau?" "No. Not to my knowledge. It would not have been good. Hunter hated him, he tried to sue him, and sent many very threatening letters."
Those familiar with HST's letters, collected in The Gonzo Papers and other books, will recall the venomous invective he was prone to hurl at enemies who'd never spoken his name, much less caricatured him. Along these lines, Juan recommended his father's obituary of Richard Nixon, He Was a Crook. Nixon features heavily in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, along with Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, and George Wallace. A stark and readable book if you've got election fever.
I have been a fan of HST's writing since I was 17 in the late 90s, and remember where I was when I heard that he had shot himself. I remember thinking "what will things be like now?" His last book, Hey Rube, a collection of columns by the same name for ESPN, excoriated the Bush Administration and the rabid public that voted for him twice in between literary reverie and old school sports writing . It will hopefully gain more mainstream credibility with age as time catches up with his reportage.
"Have you forgiven your father for killing himself?" "So many people have written to me and in the press that they felt angry. I can understand, but I didn't and haven't felt that way. I would have liked for him to have been around for a few more years for my son's sake, so that they could have had that time." He again mentioned the gloom of Hunter's final days as he lost more and more control of his body.
"It just made sense if you knew him." 3:19:16