The following is a short excerpt from David S. Wills’ forthcoming High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism, the first comprehensive study of the work of Hunter S. Thompson.
Turn back the pages of history and see the men who have shaped the destiny of the world. Security was never theirs […] Where would the world be if all men had sought security and not taken risks or gambled with their lives on the chance that, if they won, life would be different and richer?Hunter S. Thompson, age 17
In studying the work of a great writer, one often finds that even when their breakthrough came suddenly later in life much of what set them on this literary path can still be traced back to their childhood. Perhaps this is an obvious remark. We are all, essentially, products of our environment. Just as our parents’ DNA shapes our faces, so too do experiences in our childhood often go a long way toward explaining what we do in our thirties and forties, long after those memories have faded away.
What, then, can be said about the creation of Gonzo journalism? What sort of childhood puts someone on the road to writing a book as hilariously twisted as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? What is it in the life of a little boy from Louisville that sets him on a course to becoming the countercultural hero of his day—an author better known for his debauched lifestyle than his innovative prose?
As absurd as it may seem, there is much in the childhood of Hunter S. Thompson that, in retrospect, set him on the path to being an outlaw journalist. It was in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood in the American South that a mischievous little boy with a forceful personality began to shape the worldview and personality that would one day propel him into the national consciousness as a writer so unique that he inhabited a one-man literary genre, and whose bizarre imagination and penchant for excess had a profound impact upon American literature, journalism, and politics in the late twentieth century.
Hunter Stockton Thompson was born on July 18, 1937, to Jack and Virginia Thompson of Louisville, Kentucky. Though his hardworking parents were middle-class folk, Hunter came from a long line of rebels, misfits, and outsiders, with various members of his family named Lawless, including his uncle. He had outlaw blood and many of the characteristics that marked him as an adult were there from the very beginning. His first wife, reflecting on conversations with Virginia, once remarked that Hunter had “shot out of the womb angry.” Indeed, he was not an easy baby. Young Hunter was rebellious from the get-go and made life difficult for his mother and most of the people around him. Even as a child, he was a nocturne with a resolute determination that the world around him would march to the beat of his drum, and not the other way around. His father, much older than his mother and embarking upon marriage and parenthood for the second time, had little patience for his crying. Virginia took care of him alone—a loving but exhausted mother alone with her irascible, obstinate child.
In interviews with his friends and family, it often seems that people are describing two Hunters. Almost everyone agrees that he was charming, handsome, and kind, but at the same time that he was violent, selfish, and petty. These threads ran through his personality from a very young age and marked him until his death in 2005. He was, in many ways, an enigma, a mess of contradictions. Anyone who knew him well enough and long enough to get past his grizzled exterior found the positives within him, but those were inseparable from the ferocious temper and inexcusable cruelty of which he could sometimes be capable.
Young Hunter was unusually charismatic. The other boys in his neighborhood flocked to him and followed him wherever he went, filled with admiration and a giddy sense of fear. He was handsome, too, with good manners, and so girls liked him. The only ones who did not, it seemed, were parents and teachers. Most of them could see that Hunter meant trouble and they warned their sons and daughters away from him. Still, he was such a magnetic force to these impressionable minds that they would continue to follow him around, and many were hurt as a result. Hunter would steal their toys, get them into trouble with teachers or parents, and was responsible for many a bloodied nose or blackened eye. In school, he barked questions at his teachers in a prematurely deep voice and may have been labeled “Little Hitler” by his principal.
To his friends, Hunter was a barrel of laughs but being around him could also be stressful and exhausting, as his family well knew. He was frequently the center of attention and he commanded the respect and loyalty of his peers, requiring that his friends join in his escapades. These went a little beyond the purview of most pre-teen rebels because Hunter’s imagination, even at this age, was bizarre. He loved thinking up wild pranks to pull, and the more complicated they were, the better. These would often involve meticulous planning and the concerted efforts of his loyal friends. His childhood sweetheart characterized him as both “excessive” and “highly experimental”—labels easily applied to much of his best writing as an adult.
Violence and chaos were also parts of his life from a young age. Hunter would stomp around his neighborhood, demanding to know if the other kids were Yankees or Confederates, and he would start fights with those who answered incorrectly. Friends recall him often turning to violence but seldom being caught because of his charm and loquacity. “Lying was the thing he did best,” a childhood friend told one of Thompson’s biographers. “He did it with total cool and total confidence.” He also enjoyed staging battles in the nearby woods, throwing rocks at other children, and attempting to start race wars. He would gather up his friends, rouse them into a frenzy, and then shoot BB guns and shout racial epithets at the local African American children. His lifelong passion for provoking chaos was very much in place.
At school, Hunter’s behavior may have enraged his teachers but it brought him the sort of schoolyard infamy that ensured his popularity. Throughout much of his life, his eccentric attitude and actions set him apart and made him appear so outrageous that others were drawn to him. He was no class clown, but a mixture of bravado and humor made him popular. His former classmates recall him being hilariously funny without ever telling jokes. He was sarcastic and outrageous, and never worried about offending others or getting in trouble with parents and teachers.
For Hunter, the greatest form of entertainment was doing something shocking and watching people’s reactions to it. It was even better if he could convince someone else to take all the risk while he just looked on. His lifelong obsession with bullwhips began early and one of his favorite pranks was chasing friends through public places and pretending to whip them half to death. While the very notion of this was amusing to him, it was the horrified faces of onlookers that made it all worthwhile. He also enjoyed forcing other boys to fake seizures in shops and he sometimes dressed up as an old lady just to see people’s reaction when they figured out that it was actually him in a costume. In one legendary prank, he arranged a fake kidnapping that even made the newspapers.
When he was not staging elaborate pranks, Thompson was involved in acts of vandalism, some of which were also meticulously planned. One oft-cited example involved using clothespins, rubber bands, and matches to make little firebombs that he would shoot from his bicycle as he cycled around town in fall. He would aim these at the piles of leaves people swept up around their houses, so that they would smolder away for twenty minutes before catching fire, by which time Hunter was far enough away to avoid any blame. His vandalism went on for years, often bringing him in contact with the police. On one occasion, Hunter even set fire to a restaurant called Joe’s Diner.
Thompson was suspected of being behind a spate of very serious incidents perpetrated by a group called “The Wreckers,” who claimed responsibility for offenses including flooding churches, destroying athletic trophies, and cutting the sleeves off choir robes. Although Hunter and his friends were never formally charged with the damage, it was widely believed that they were responsible due to the incredibly bizarre nature of the vandalism. While Thompson enjoyed breaking things for the sake of breaking them, he was known for his creative capacity even in acts of destruction. Indeed, looking over the reports in hindsight, his guilt seems rather obvious. The vandals left messages scrawled in black crayon, claiming that they were “not thieves” and professing no reason for their crime other than “excitement,” and then called in confessions in the wee hours. The caller, police reported, “did not sound like a juvenile at all.” He had a “calm, cultured” and “cocksure” voice and sounded about twenty-five. At several vandalized locations, police found emptied fire extinguishers—another lifelong obsession for Hunter.