The Great Gonzo

Ten years ago last week, a journalist who opened my mind to a whole new way of writing and reporting died. On Feb. 20, 2005, Hunter S. Thompson, the famed gonzo journalist, took his own life at the age of 67.

I first heard of Thompson when it was announced in the late 1990s that his book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream” was being made into a movie starring Johnny Depp. I remember the book being referred to as an “underground classic,” words that made me eager to hunt it down and devour it, just as I had with other underground classics like Jim Carroll’s “The Basketball Diaries” or Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land.

Reading “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” I was blown away by Thompson’s speed-freak prose and staccato sentences. I quickly gobbled up “Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs” and his sole novel, “The Rum Diary.” I watched Depp in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” then I watched Bill Murray play Thompson in an earlier film, “Where the Buffalo Roam.”

Thompson’s take on journalism was to become a part of the story, if not the story itself. Embedding with the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club, Thompson wrote about being beaten by the very men he was covering. “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72” is a landmark book on political campaigns.

I still hold to the tradition that a journalist should not be part of the story, rather, an objective observer full of questions. The value of Thompson’s work, for me, is that it shows how a writer can break the confines, break the rules, and turn out stories that are unique, different — gonzo.

Thompson, who reportedly killed himself due to his myriad of painful medical conditions, wished to have his ashes fired from a giant cannon, followed by patriotic fireworks. Despite being the king of freak culture, Thompson also was a good American out to expose the phonies and the frauds.