The Sixties look drab now—unkempt Manson girls, the lost and unhappy, kids bleak and bleary-brained after waking up with too many strangers in too many sour crash pads. There was that. It was not a time for the weak-minded. But for those whose youth passed in the freak years, there was something gaudy and silly and even profound, something delightfully warped, that nobody else would ever have. Thompson caught it.
I didn’t know him. Others have written better than I can of his work. But I knew the world that gave rise to him.
Starting around 1964, a restlessness came over the land, an itch. Kids trickled and later flooded onto the highways as if called by something. I can’t explain it. Few had done it before. Few do it now. They—we–set forth and created the only country in which Thompson could have made sense.
It wasn’t the war, at first. Nor was it only the usual impatience of youth with authority. Nor was it even that we were young and the world was wide. There was a revulsion against suburban emptiness, against the eight-to-five Ozzie and Harriet gig, a rejection of the Establishment, which meant boring jobs and singing commercials.
We discovered drugs, then regarded as worse than virgin sacrifices to Moloch, and looked through a window we could never name. If the times were out of joint, we were seldom out of joints. Chemistry defined the life. You found a freak in some rotting slum and said, “Hey, man, got some shit?” You toked up. You got the munchies, the skitters, the fears. Parents really didn’t understand. Dope, we said, will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope. It did.
Thompson, a savage writer, a grand middle finger raised against the sky, essayed drugs and found them good. And said so, and we loved him. When he wrote of getting wacked out of his mind on seven illicit pharmaceuticals, and wandering in puzzled paranoia through the lobby of existence, we shrieked with laughter. We knew the same drugs. We too had tried desperately to look straight in public when the world had turned into a slow-motion movie. When it was over, everybody went into a law firm.
Our socio-political understanding was limited. After all, we were pretty much kids. I remember having a discussion in Riverside, California, of how Republicans reproduced. We didn’t think it could be by sex. I figured it was by budding.
For a while though, it all worked. Apostles of the long-haul thumb, we hitchhiked in altered mental states. I don’t recommend it without guidance. We stood by the western highways as the big rigs roared by, rocking in the wash and the keening of the tires, desert stretching off to clot-red hills in the distance. At night we might buy bottles of Triple Jack at some isolated gas station and dip into an arroyo, roll a fat one and swill Jack and talk and hallucinate under the stars. An insight of the times was that if you got fifty feet off the beaten track and sat down, you didn’t exist. It still works if you need it.
None of it was reasonable. I’ve never found anything worthwhile that was.
Then there was politics, the war. Thompson was rocket smart and knew you couldn’t work within the system since that meant granting it legitimacy. Peace with Honor, the Light at the End of the Tunnel, all the ashen columnists arguing about timed withdrawal and incremental pressure. He knew it was about profits for McDonnell Douglas and egotistical warts growing like malignant goiters on the neck of the country. He was Johnny Pot Seed, a Windowpane Ghandi, dangerous as Twain.
The times brought their epiphanies. I remember being gezonked on mescaline in a pad in Stafford, Virginia, and realizing that existence was the point of execution in a giant Fortran program. So it’s all done in software, I thought. I was floating in the universe. In the infinite darkness of space the code stretched above and below in IBM blue letters hundreds of feet high that converged to nothingness: N = N * 5, Go To 43, ITEST = 4**IEXP. For an hour I was awash in understanding. The stereo was playing Bolero, which was written by a Do-loop, so it all fitted.
Thompson savaged it all, lampooned it, creating a world of consciousness-sculpting substances and bad-ass motorcycles and absolute cynicism about the government. Today, after thirty years of journalism, I can’t find the flaw in his reasoning.
The other writer of the age was Tom Wolfe, but he wasn’t in Thompson’s league. Wolfe was a talented outsider looking perceptively at someone else’s trip. Thompson lived the life, liked big-bore handguns and big-bore bikes and had a liver analysis that read like a Merck catalog. His paranoia may be style, but you can’t write what you aren’t almost.
I remember standing alone in early afternoon beside some two-lane desert road in New Mexico, or somewhere else, that undulated off through rolling hills and had absolutely no traffic. I don’t know that I was on anything. Of course, I don’t know that I wasn’t. A murky sun hung in an aluminum sky like a fried egg waiting to fall and mesquite bushes pocked the dry sand with blue mortar bursts. The silence was infinite. I lay in the middle of the road for a while just because I could. Then I followed a line of ants into the desert to see where they were going.
A grey Buick Riviera, a wheeled barge lost in the desert, slid to a stop. The trunk creaked open like a jaw. A squatty little mushroomy woman behind the wheel motioned me to get it. As we drove the cruise alarm buzzed, and she told me it was a Communist radar. They were watching her from the hills.
It was a Thompson moment.
Then it was over. Everybody went into I-banking or something equally odious. We gave up drugs as boring.
You can see why he ate his gun. Everything he hated has returned. Nixon is back in the White House, Rumsnamara risen from the dead, bombs falling on other peoples’ suburbs. The Pentagon is lying again and democracy stalks yet another helpless country. This time the young are already dead and there will be no joyous anarchy. The press, housebroken, pees where it is told. But he gave it a hell of a try.