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A day fraught with loss and lament

John Harvey

is a journalist from Port Elizabeth.

Have your say! To comment on this piece write to webvoet@litnet.co.za, and become a part of our interactive opinion page.


1937 - 2005

Most people will remember where they were and what they were doing when the first bulletins began to filter through of Princess Diana's death in late August 1997.

As with John F Kennedy's assassination 34 years before, the entire world was immersed in a moment that seemingly had been frozen in time, a collective disbelief that pained the senses in a manner too horrific to contemplate but too surreal to ignore.

The apparent suicide of journalist and novelist Hunter S Thompson on February 21, 2005 will go down in the annals of literary discipline as a day fraught with loss and lament, to adherents of the written word equal in measure to that suffered on the occasions of Kennedy's and Diana's tragic passing.

What aggravates the salient grief that has accompanied the news of Thompson's death is that suicide goes against the entire ethos of his being. A writer tagged by fans as "the champion of fun", the self-styled gonzo journalist took a dim and frequently scathing view of anyone who may have shirked the "thrill" of flying in the face of adversity and danger.

A 1998 article by the Daily Telegraph's Marianne MacDonald told of how Thompson would invite journalists to his Aspen compound and terrorise them with "drink-driving" joyrides around "Fat City's" icy slopes. In response to their vehement protests he would merely ridicule their fears and renege on his agreement to be interviewed.

That the same personality could take his own life does not befit the legend that rose up around him, a mythical creature created from the confidence he had in himself and his ability and fuelled by every illegal vice known to mankind.

Like millions the world over, I came to worship Thompson for this precise reason: the fact that his entire existence was built on the twin pillars of brilliance and hell-raising, but unlike others who have succumbed to abuse and greater society's disparagement thereof, never apologising for his addictions or their consequences.

As has been so widely documented, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas proved to be the tome that set Thompson on the path to greatness. However, while the book - semi-autobiographical, with large helpings of fabricated mirth thrown in for good measure - certainly introduced many to his writings, his political candour in Fear and Loathing in America and Better than Sex was unparalleled when journalism's established masters busied themselves with toeing whatever line the day's prevailing order laid down.

It is certainly not untrue to say that his talent waned markedly in later years. Favoured phrases like "buy the ticket, take the ride" or "reduced to the level of dumb beasts" suddenly took pride of place in his offerings at the expense of any real, well-crafted insight.

His final years saw him writing a regular column for American sports website espn.com, and while a collection was published in 2004, he never again scaled the heights of Hell's Angels, The Great Shark Hunt and his only novel, The Rum Diary.

Be that as it may, the contribution made by the "desperate Southern gentleman" that was Hunter S Thompson to the infinite realm of words can and never will be depreciated, by time or any person.

His legacy will live on and continue to fan the flames of exuberance and rebellion, literature and every face of reason.

As was his wont to pen in so many famous works: "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."

And there never has been one to embody and relay both facets as well.



LitNet: 22 February 2004

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