Fear and loathing in Downingtown, Pa.: A long, weird trip

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A writer speaks on the loss of an icon

There’s not much to do where I live in a small suburb of Downingtown, Pa. With the exception of the occasional car accident or teacher strike, nothing exciting ever happens. I spend most of my time in Downingtown drinking imported beer and firing shotguns off into my backyard late at night. Every now and then I hit something: a satellite dish, small animal, or housecat. But for the most part, the excitement comes from watching the beautiful blue and orange flame jump out of the barrel, contrasted against a dark, cloudless night. But a guy like me — a liberal living in one of the wealthiest counties in the country — needed something more. I needed something that the public education system could not provide me with. I needed an ally.

Enter Hunter S. Thompson. I first read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a 16-year-old, depressed and still complaining about a lack of female partners because of my acne. The political world had suddenly opened its skies to me, and it was raining drops of Freak Power. Thompson had come into my life and there was little chance that he would ever leave it. Suddenly, I had a sly smirk on my face during history class. I knew more than the swine in charge did, and they didn’t understand how. I knew America.

On February 20, 2005, I was a senior in high school, trudging along the hallways and counting the days until I was “free.” Soon I’d don the cheap blue and gold cap and gown and walk down the aisle at the 50-yard line of a sweaty football stadium in front of a sparse crowd of parents and grandparents. Soon I’d have freedom from the oppression and tyranny of first-period study hall.

That afternoon, I arrived home three sheets to the wind from whiskey and a deep analysis of Camus’ The Stranger. The French have a way of boggling my mind when it comes to literature. Something about existentialist thought, red wine, and tall metal towers frightens me. I flicked on the television and clicked past infomercials and soap operas about illegitimate children. I found my way to CNN and almost fainted in the middle of the living room.


I didn’t believe it was possible. I called my friend Greg on the telephone. “Are you watching this?” I shouted into the receiver.

He hadn’t been, so I informed him that Thompson had shot himself. “You mean the guy who wrote about drugs?” he asked.

“Scum!” I shouted, and threw my phone across the floor. It snapped in half, the receiver landing somewhere behind the trash can. I have no tolerance for people who automatically associate Thompson with drug use. He was a man of excess, and that certainly involved multiple experiences with incredibly dangerous chemicals, but it was about so much more! Thompson wrote about politics and greed and the idea of Freak Power: The idea that someone like him or like us could ultimately have control in a world gone mad. It was the idea that if all the freaks would band together, there was nothing that they couldn’t accomplish. It was about the Death of the American Dream, not something as petty and simple as cocaine and LSD.

I spent the rest of the afternoon in my room. I was pacing, chain-smoking, and doing push-ups. I was the portrait of Dick Cheney on speed, swearing incessantly and throwing lamps and clothing all around my room. How could it have happened? I wanted to romanticize the idea of America’s last great outlaw taking his own life when he saw it necessary. This only filled me with dread, so I fell asleep in the chair at my desk.

There is something about the way Thompson’s writing grabbed my attention that is impossible to articulate in words. He had an incredibly sharp, biting sense of humor that came across so clearly with the language he used in his descriptions. Thompson could make light out of a situation as horrifying as a murderous drug rampage or driving while intoxicated on the California freeway. He had such a strange ability to remain lovable and admirable while writing about unspeakable acts that were often shunned by society. We envied Hunter because he embodied everything we wished we could be. He was the outlaw journalist.

Today, February 19, 2007, one day away from the two-year anniversary of Hunter’s death, I still try and rationalize his passing to myself. Many believe that this was the right way for Hunter to leave. After all, he was the last outlaw this country knew and celebrated. He lived life faster than those around him and a quiet death would not have been appropriate for a man with his lifestyle and legacy. I catch myself wondering if there was anything left. I wonder whether or not he still had a few years of intelligent writing and social assessment in him, and I feel cheated by his early exit. But then I remember his understanding of the world around us and the keen observations he made that everyone else seemed to ignore. I remember his brilliance and the fact that he could see aspects of human nature so well while others were blind to them. I remember all of these things and I realize: He knew better than anybody else (God, Bog, whoever) when it was his time to leave. He knew this just like he knew the political system better than any journalist, Senator, or Congressman.

As British literary figure Samuel Johnson wrote, and Thompson quoted at the beginning of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” Well, Good Doctor, this beast is numb, and it’s all thanks to you. Cheers, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. The world will never know another who could match your genius.