I FEEL LIKE I'VE KNOWN Hunter S. Thompson for most of my life. I first encountered him in 1981, when I was 12. A family friend had moved out after a long stay in the guest room, and I decided to find out what he'd left behind. On the nightstand I found a copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I liked the cover art, so I read it. It changed my life.
The book made me want to drop everything (specifically, the sixth grade) and take up journalism. It made me want to travel the world with a pen and notebook, having adventures, recording my observations, and speaking fearlessly on behalf of truth as a sworn guardian of the First Amendment. But mostly, it made me want to do drugs.
In the first chapter, Thompson famously describes the stash he's accumulated for his weekend road trip to Vegas: "two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of uppers, downers, laughers, screamers." This is in addition to "a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls."
I resolved to try it all, down to the ether, which I finally located midway through tenth grade in a headshop on the West Side of Manhattan. (It gave me double vision and a headache.) Tracking down and taking everything on Thompson's list became a kind of mission, a pharmacological scavenger hunt that preoccupied me through high school.
At this point, I should add the customary disclaimer about how drugs are bad, a lie and a trap and a destroyer of lives. That's all true, but not in my case. For me, the whole experience was interesting and fun. I had a great time.
On the other hand, I grew out of it. By the time I got to college, mind expansion had lost its appeal. I switched to beer.
One night freshman year, I drove to Providence to see Hunter Thompson debate G. Gordon Liddy in a lecture hall at Brown. Thompson showed up slobbering, then got even drunker. He took swigs from a bottle of whiskey and yelled incoherently about Richard Nixon. But booze wasn't the basic problem. Dead sober, Thompson still would have embarrassed himself. He didn't have much to say.
Later I learned that every childhood hero disappoints you if you get close enough. But that night at Brown, I was stunned, and totally disillusioned. Thompson wasn't anything like I'd imagined.
It was 18 years before I saw him again. Last month, a friend invited my wife and me to New Orleans to have dinner with Hunter Thompson. We met at Arnaud's in the French Quarter. Thompson couldn't make it to the second floor dining room because of a bad leg, so we sat at the bar. He didn't say much, and when he did he spoke in a faint, slurry voice. He smiled a lot. He could not have been nicer.
I wasn't shocked this time, just sad. For a while, Thompson was the funniest writer in America. His sentences were tight and precise and perfectly balanced. Now he seemed almost unable to communicate with words.
After an hour or so, I got up to leave. Rather than shake my hand, Thompson leaned forward and pulled me in, hugging me so hard and for so long that his lapel pin left an imprint on my check. Then he handed me his pack of Dunhill, Superior Mild, with one left in the box. I couldn't tell if he wanted me to smoke the cigarette, or if he was passing it on as a keepsake. I put the pack in my pocket. It's sitting on my desk as I type.
The night after Hunter Thompson killed himself I got into bed with my copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I finished it at dawn. I'm happy to say I wasn't disappointed. It was as good as I remembered.