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The Closing of the American Mouth

He wouldn’t stop rocking. The night before, Hunter S. Thompson had sat like a lead Buddha at the signing/party/reading Taschen Books staged for him in Beverly Hills, where a reverent public lined up for autographs and waited for Thompson to break something, say something outrageous or just throw up. Now, though, as midnight approached in his suite at the Chateau Marmont, he sat propped up in a pillowed chair, eyes flashing behind aviator glasses, the big torso rocking back and forth while he tapped his Dunhill Blue over an ashtray. Maybe he was agitated because his left leg, badly injured in a drunken slip-and-fall, was hurting him, or because he knew the promoter who was supposed to charter a jet to take him and his wife back to Colorado had vanished. In any case, he was being a sport by letting me interview him before his celebrity friends started stopping by.

The thing I remember the most was that he spoke to me with complete openness and interest, as though I were his newest drinking buddy — which, for 90 minutes at least, I suppose I was. It was easy to see that Thompson was the kind of person who could make friends late in life and, in this sense, he truly was a man of the 1960s, a time before the closing of the American mouth — before waivers, gag orders and political allergies quelled this country’s restless voices into respectful but sullen silence. Thompson was a funny man and a profane one, but he was also an angry son of a bitch in a country that had outlawed anger.

His hatred of Richard Nixon was legendary but now it had been replaced by a mortal disdain for George W. Bush and his administration’s cornpone fascism. We talked about politics and gambling, and tried to remember our favorite beginning lines of books. (He loved James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon,” while I recalled first reading, in an Indio jail, David Halberstam’s “A cold day in December” from The Best and the Brightest.)



Bald and perennially dressed for the 19th hole, Thompson did not look like the standard image of a ’60s rebel. He reminded me of a guy who once stopped his Cadillac to give me a ride across Utah, a retired military gent at ease with life enough to let me drive his big car while he sat in the back seat with his young wife, pointing out the Great Salt Lake shimmering in the heat. Thompson, too, had thumbed his way around when young and his journeys had led to his creation of gonzo journalism. But he had also become that guy in Utah, right down to the Cadillac and young bride. At the end of a life of kicks, perhaps, the Wild Turkey had lost its taste, his body hurt and America’s Wobbly heart had grown cold and stingy. When Thompson pulled the trigger last Sunday, he left a country that was no longer as audacious as his prose nor even reading as much as it once had.

I’d been thinking a lot about Thompson lately — about what he thought of the election, the World Series and when his photographic memoir and the movie of The Rum Diary were finally coming out. He was the kind of man shy strangers have no trouble phoning in the middle of the night. When I finally did call Thompson’s Woody Creek fort Monday, the phone rang and rang — not even a voice machine came on to lie to me. I couldn’t let go of the receiver, but just listened to the sad Morse code ringing out on the other end, knowing when I hung up there would only be a rocking silence.


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