The one about Hunter Thompson

Speaking Volumes, first published in Business Standard,
February 22, 2005

Hunter S Thompson shot himself this week, before I could slide over to his “fortified farm” outside Aspen, complete with peacocks and an awesome collection of rifles, shotguns, and revolvers, and say thank you.

We used him to deprogramme impressionable young Indian journalists who’d been told to read the New York Review of Books and the TLS, and worse still, The Guardian, for pointers on style.
“You want to know what style is, ja?” we’d say to some quaking, innocent youngster who could still recite Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman, complete with clip-clop sound effects. “You want to know how REAL journalists do it? Then read this.”
And we’d roll out the first lines of the original Fear and Loathing, the one that had the Duke and his 300-pound Samoan attorney careening across America on the ultimate road trip: “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”
As they lapped up their first taste of gonzo journalism like starved kittens at a saucer of mescaline-laced cream, we knew that nothing in their lives would ever be the same again.
Either they would pack it in and become overpaid accountants at a white-collar corporate house or we would soon hear the faint, pitiful sounds of screaming from insomniac sub-editors faced with the prospect of cleaning up a report on changing cabotage laws written by a bright young thing who now believed in Thompson’s only-the-paranoid-survive and there-is-no-such-thing-as-objective-journalism mantras.
Thompson saw himself as the last American outlaw long before he became one. He had an early run-in with the FBI at the age of nine over the question of purloined mailboxes, which left him with a healthy paranoia and a conviction that the law could be outsmarted.
When he grew up—if he ever did—he covered the Hell’s Angels from the inside, pointed out to America that Nixon was the AntiChrist and the first sign of the US’ impending nervous breakdown, and famously, late on a deadline, sent off his beer-whisky-tequila-and-assorted-drug-fuelled notes instead of a proper article, pretty much making up gonzo journalism as he went along.
He offered to inflict grievous bodily harm on too many people to count, spawned too many fear-and-loathing inspired knock-offs to count, bust up too many parties to count—including one thrown by Rolling Stone for him, where he discovered and wielded a fire extinguisher to such effect that he was barred from the bash, despite being the guest of honour.
He remained permanently angry till the end: angry at America, at Bush, at the fact that his country had been taken over and muzzled by a combine made up of the military, the police, and government. And paranoid.
After following presidents around on the campaign trail, after exploring the counterculture and becoming its voice, after innumerable run-ins with the law (“The law changes and I don’t … I consider myself a road man for the laws of karma”), he knew that reality was stranger than paranoia.
Hunter S Thompson became something of a parody himself towards the end; by the time the Duke arrived on Garry Trudeau’s comic strip, Doonesbury, as The High Lord of Inner Space, he had descended into cariacature. Like an old bull still baited by the odd yapping dog, he could be trusted to fulminate on demand; he wrote sports columns for ESPN, and invented the game of Shotgun Golf in his last one; he had been played by Johnny Depp in the official Fear and Loathing movie.
The end he had imagined for himself was spectacular—he envisaged going down in flames in one way or another, though his favourite exit plan involved a speeding motorcycle in a crash. We thought, at 67, that he would go out snarling, grumbling, truculent; we didn’t really believe that he would put the final period himself to the swaggering, rambunctious, pugnacious sentence of his life.
The Super Booker shortlist: Hunter Thompson never had a chance of making it onto anything as primly literary as the Man Booker International Prize—he’d have livened it up a bit. The three judges for the Booker’s answer to the Nobel are an interesting bunch: John Carey, Alberto Manguel, and Azar Nafisi—all serious readers, which is the only qualification you need in a judge.
The shortlist of 18 had a few surprises: neither Naipaul nor Rushdie made the cut, which, given the quality of their recent work, shouldn’t actually raise eyebrows. Rushdie might yet find a place on the list next year, if his novel Shalimar the Clown sets a higher standard than the previous three he’s written. Naipaul hasn’t written a decent novel in years, but I’d expect a future shortlist to include him at some stage on the basis of his early fiction and some of the non-fiction.
Margaret Atwood, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Milan Kundera, Gunter Grass, Saul Bellow, Naguib Mahfouz, Kenzabura Oe, and Doris Lessing are incontestable choices. The inclusion of Israeli writer A B Yehoshua, Antonio Tabucchi, Ismail Kadare, and Tomas Eloy Martinez shows a definite determination to take the “Superbooker” beyond the limited circle of writers famous only in the English-speaking world.
John Updike, Philip Roth, Ian McEwan, Cynthia Ozick, and Muriel Spark are also on the list, indicating that the judges are willing to consider writers who have built up a reputation over the years without quite being in the Nobel Laureate class.
But speaking personally, I was delighted to see Stanislaw Lem on the list. He’s one of the SF greats—it’s a sign that the SuperBooker might be more amenable than most mainstream literary prizes to considering great work from the genre ghettos.
There’s plenty to quibble about, which is half the fun of literary prizes—why no Wole Soyinka, where’s Chinua Achebe, how come they left out J M Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, and some of us in the back rows are muttering that Haruki Murakami deserved the nod far more than Updike or even McEwan.
The one area where the SuperBooker performed dismally was with its People’s Choice section. Perhaps it hasn’t been publicised well enough, but the votes didn’t exactly come pouring in. Some used it to push personal agendas—I have no idea who Sean Wright or Charles De Lint are, but they’re up on the website.
It’s also far too easy to manipulate online voting lists, and the Man Booker committee might want to think about tightening screening policies—some users have cast votes several times under aliases, for instance. Or maybe I’m griping because I didn’t go out there and vote for the Duke before he exited, stage left.

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