Writing and drinking go together like Batman and Robin. Writing is what matters; drinking just tags along and screws up your plans.
I finished HELL’S ANGELS (1966) by Hunter S. Thompson last night. It was an interesting read, and did not play into the image I had for Thompson — and I believe I know why.
By the time I’d heard of him, through THE CURSE OF LONO in the early 1980s, he’d become a caricature of himself — a weird old grouch who was funny to listen to, but not exactly credible. According to his editors at Rolling Stone and the San Francisco Chronicle, he went into an alcohol and LSD-lubricated decline in the mid-70s, with only occasional bouts of brilliance afterwards.
It saddens me to see what happened to the man, through his words, after starting with his nuttier, later stuff, then going back to HELL’S ANGELS, which is a sober, sometimes funny, often insightful book. Hunter did not make himself the story, as is the cliche with “gonzo” journalism; he focused on the Angels, and wrote what he saw: the good, the bad, and the pitiful. Though he did get drunk with them, from what I can tell he didn’t write while drunk. He kept a recorder for notes, and gathered his thoughts later. There is only occasional editorializing, and it’s well-handled. Most of what he writes is factual, pointing out the hyperbole published by Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times about motorcycle gangs — and how that press-fueled infamy affected the Angels.
However, there are signs even in HELL’S ANGELS that he was on the path of the alcoholic, and perhaps shifting from experimenter to regular drug user after hanging out with Ken Kesey and his “Merry Pranksters.” He seems to have remained a functioning alcoholic and drug user for another six or seven years… then, it’s debatable.
Thompson strikes me as a natively-intelligent man, as opposed to an educated man, with a clear eye and a natural curiosity. I think without the alcohol and drug abuse, he’d have remained insightful for another 40 years after HELL’S ANGELS, instead of writing the two FEAR AND LOATHING books, then at least two novels, THE NIGHT MANAGER and POLO IS MY LIFE, which were apparently unpublishable — POLO IS MY LIFE got so far as getting an ISBN number in 1999, but Random House sat on it — and a series of odd one-off pieces about shark hunting and porn.
Writing is hard. It takes brains. And while it’s natural for melancholy people to find satisfaction in writing, when they exaggerate that trait with booze and pills, their art eventually suffers, because their brains are suffering.
I think Chef on South Park said it best: “There’s a time and place for everything — and it’s called college.” After that, it’s time to grow up and use the talents you’ve developed — not piss them away in cases of beer, scraped out bongs, and hits of acid.
Maybe if Thompson had been given the standard, middle class American college experience, he wouldn’t have felt the need to keep living that way as an adult. I get the sense from HELL’S ANGELS that he was uncomfortable with both “squares” and Angels — and that’s a feeling I can identify with, even in middle age in the suburbs. I wish he’d written much more, with the mind he had in 1966, instead of pickling it and hanging it out to dry in Colorado, where he turned violently inward until even he couldn’t stand himself anymore.
I figure I’ve got another 40 years of life left — and that assumes I live into my 80s. Seems likely, but certainly not guaranteed. I don’t want to spend any of those days with self-inflicted brain damage. Life is hard enough; writing, doubly so. And I like writing.
Let’s call the image of the alcoholic writer what it is — a sad stereotype that destroyed too many talents before their time — not a badge of honor, like a Hell’s Angel taking a corner too fast, with no helmet or leather, to embrace death.