The Lyons Press, 2009, 252 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-1-59921-357-6
Four years after Thompson’s suicide, the market for his biographies is booming. Other than William McKean’s dispassionate, meticulous and mesmerizing Outlaw Journalist, there has been a small but steady stream of personal recollections of the man by friends. Simon Cowan’s Hunter S. Thompson is entering a crowded market, and one of the questions that arises isn’t just whether it accurately portrays Thompson, but if it manages to say something new about him.
Cowan has a privileged perspective in that he grew up near Thompson’s Woody Creek (one of the first chapters has him describing, as a high-school student, one of his first meetings with Thompson), eventually became a caretaker on Thompson’s ranch -imagine having Thompson as a landlord!- and ended up a journalist with solid publication credits. This gives him both the anecdotes to write a personal recollection of what it was like to live alongside Thompson, and the writing skills to deliver an overall evaluation of Thompson’s work.
The result is a surprisingly good piece of work that few Thompson fans may have expected. It does more than go beyond the legend. Cowan was close enough to Thompson to see him at his best and worst: The revelations in the book will do much to confirm a few suspicions.
If you have only one chapter to read, make it “Guns, Lawyers and Money”: This is where we learn much about Thompson’s history of legal trouble (including a few DUI incidents that, to the best of my recollections, were not often mentioned in other Thompson biographies), his constant need for attorneys (and tangled relationship with them), the fact that hasn’t a very good shot despite his fondness for weapons, and does its best to answer the question of why Thompson was always broke despite -especially in later years- a fairly comfortable stream of royalties. Part of the answer, unsurprisingly enough, is drugs: Cowan loosely estimates that Thompson’s lifetime drug tab to be around two million dollars (not all of which came out of his pocket, mind you), which puts to rest one my own long-standing questions about Thompson’s lifestyle. Add to that Thompson’s lavish and impulsive spending habits and you do end up with someone who, financially speaking, spent his entire life on the edge.
Cowan is not necessarily any kinder when it comes to the mystique of Thompson-as-a-writer, especially during his least productive years: Cowan was around when Thompson wrote the San Francisco Examiner columns collected in Generation of Swine, and his description of the process clearly highlights the importance that his editors and assistants had in re-shaping Thompson’s prose into something workable. Cowan isn’t particularly sympathetic to the moments where Thompson drank or snorted himself in a stupor: One particularly affecting passage describes the scene when a high-ranking Gary Hart staffer, seeking advice in the wake of the scandal that destroyed Hart’s 1988 presidential bid, discovers a “nearly catatonic” Thompson unable to do anything but “open his eyes, roll his head around and utter noises” [P.201].
Even for those who have read nearly everything else by or about Thompson, Cowan’s book offers an unflinching series of anecdotes and fits them into the known legend. Cowan tells the real story behind The Curse of Lono, describes some of Thompson’s celebrity encounters, recalls with a cringe his participation in a failed intervention to get Thompson to lay off drugs, and eventually acknowledges the role of Thompson’s abuse of his female companions in driving a wedge between himself and his subject.
But best of all, the book is narrated with a strong sense of what makes anecdotes work, and Cowan has enough distance from his subject to be able to ties those anecdotes in an even-handed portrait of his subject. Hunter S. Thompson is a breezy, fair and often-amusing look at a fascinating subject. It complements such works as The Kitchen Readings and Outlaw Journalist without contradicting or repeating them, and ranks among the finest books written so far by Thompson acquaintances. Few may have expected this book, but most will agree that it’s now an essential part of any Thompson retrospective.