Farewell to a Stranger
"Mothaim thu cogarnai (I hear you whispering)
Mothaim thu le comhairle (I hear your advice)
Thought I knew it all
No easy way…
How can we know what the book of life holds
For us all"
"No Easy Way"
Sometimes in this world we are fortunate enough to be touched and guided by
certain people who appear at the time and place we need them. They give us
strength in times of trouble, words when our own fail, a genuine laugh when all
we have reason for is tears. Such people are special both to ourselves and to
the world. They give something more precious than blood.
We often know these people in our families and in the circle of our friends,
within our churches, in our communities. But some of these people we really
don’t know at all – we know their works and something of their lives because
they are now dead (or famous) and have left behind something meaningful: poems,
books, art, ideas and beliefs, an example of how to live.
Life often strands us on islands where actual, physical people who assist the
soul, inspire, and point the way are few and far in between, and in those
moments the poems, books, art, ideas and beliefs, and examples of those who have
left some evidence of their passing are the very things that carry us through
loneliness and despair. There may come times in the life of the mind when those
we do not know become more real than many of the people we deal with from day to
When I was about 14, through circumstances which are of no interest, I
accidentally inherited a book called "The Great Shark Hunt." Allow me to paint a
sketch of my life as a 14 year-old when this book fell into my hands. I was very
odd, fit in with no group in high school, so by default fell in with a small
circle of people who lived on the outskirts of acceptable behavior. I didn’t fit
with them either, but at least they were not judgmental. I did not get along
with my parents very well. The church I was raised in did not satisfy my
spiritual needs. Public school in general seemed more of an exercise in
warehousing young people until they were of legal age and could be shipped out
to work minimum wage jobs than an institution devoted to teaching anything of
At the age of 14 I had pretty much given up on school as I felt school had given
up on me. This, I understand now, was childish but, as I was 14, I was a child
and lacked steady guidance. There were a few very good teachers who worked hard
with me, so I did well in science and history, for example, but the rest of it
became a burden as it consisted mainly of rote learning taught by bored people
who would rather have been doing something else.
My grades fell and I did not care. In fact, there were only three things I cared
much for at the age of 14 (if you don’t count girls): reading, writing, and
drawing. I read everything I could lay hands on. The quality did not matter, nor
the subject matter; it was all fair game. As a consequence of having no
conception of quality, however, my writing and my drawings both were amateurish.
The need to "improve" never occurred to me as I thought my creations were
completely perfect as they fell out of the end of my pen or pencil.
So I lived in a world where I indiscriminately consumed huge quantities of
writing, made things, and floated in the fantasy that as long as I did these
things I was immune to the reality of my home and school life. I was special. I
would get out of school at the first opportunity, run away, and be recognized
somewhere for being the great artist I so obviously was.
Then I read "The Great Shark Hunt."
It was by a man called Hunter S. Thompson and consisted in a great number of
articles he had written for various publications, wild, weird articles written
in a style unlike anything I had ever read before. Things with titles like "The
Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved." Things where he or a character named
Raoul Duke, who were supposed to be reporting on events or people like normal
reporters, suddenly shifted gears and started writing about how they ruined the
assignments, or about their extremely personal opinions of the subject matter.
Or mixed into the stories events which had to be exaggerations or complete
fiction. In other words, he shattered the standard conception of what a
"reporter" and a "writer" were supposed to do and remade them into something
creative, insightful, daring, personal.
I did not understand this book. I did not understand this book for a very long
time and I read and re-read it again and again. But one thing that settled on my
shoulders immediately was the weight of the conviction that, compared to
Thompson’s work, my own writing was silly, immature trash. Even writing under
the influence of illegal substances or in a manic tear, Hunter Thompson was
writing things employing something I came to understand was a high, though
peculiar, standard. He worked at writing as all good artists do with their
pursuits – he labored at it to the point one could no longer see the effort when
one read the product; it all just flowed like a river, with calm spots,
destructive and dangerous rapids, and waterfalls each occurring naturally as the
I learned more about writing from that one book, read again and again during
high school, than I ever learned in any class. Thompson made me want to be a
better writer on all levels, from choice of subject matter to style, from use of
imagination to technical ability. I did not want to imitate him in the sort of
writing I did or in following his lifestyle as being, in his own words, "a
dangerous dope fiend." In fact, I avoided hard drugs and did little
experimentation in that area on the basis of the reports Thompson so often sent
back from the land of hallucinogens and speed – he’d been to that place and
explored it so well I felt no need to copy him.
Thompson’s challenge to me was to become my own person, develop my own eyes,
hone my abilities, to be fearless when all others are terrified to speak their
minds. He became, for that lonely 14 year-old, a companion who helped me begin
the process of inheriting something like taste and discernment.
Over the years, I read most of his books, each encounter assisting me to improve
my skills as a writer and in seeing the hypocrisy and idiocy that so often
motivates the puffed up people who spend their lives worming their way into
seats of power. And he did it all with a sense of humor that few American
writers this century have even come close to approximating.
He also became for that 14 year-old one of the few voices that said it was
alright to be different from others, that being weird, a "freak," was a badge of
honor, not something to hang one’s head about; and most importantly he was one
of the people who taught me that the world is a bigger, stranger place, full of
more opportunities than my limited experiences up to that point had shown me. He
was one of the reasons I calmed myself down and got serious about getting out of
high school with a diploma so I could move on to college, learn about the things
I was not being taught.
That was 25 years ago, and for 25 years the writings of Hunter S. Thompson
helped me through some very rough times, inspired me, and still challenge me.
On 20 February of this year, Hunter Thompson shot himself in the head,
committing suicide at the age of 67. He was at the top of his career,
influential, had a good family and a happy marriage. He was in pain from hip
replacement and back surgery, but not unbearably so. But in his usual manner, he
made a wild, nearly inexplicable choice and decided to die. Unfortunately, he
will not be around to write about the aftermath of this choice.
I read an editorial in The Boston Globe that called Thompson’s death "selfish"
and the inevitable end product of the life of a "dope fiend." The writer
compared Thompson’s choice to the brave struggle and suffering of Pope John Paul
II through his disease and, of course, Hunter S. Thompson was weighed in the
balance and found wanting.
What I didn’t hear was any sympathy for what might run through the mind of a
person who has reached the point where he believes it is better to die than to
live. What I also didn’t hear in that editorial was any recognition that His
Holiness John Paul II does not support the war in Iraq for nearly exactly the
same reasons Hunter S. Thompson did not support it in his writings – in other
words, perhaps there are similarities between people like John Paul and Thompson
should one care to really look.
I learned a long time ago that a writer can take any subject and bend it in any
direction he wishes, make people see all sorts of things in a person or event
that may or may not be there. The editorialist for The Globe did that – turned
Hunter S. Thompson’s death into a morality play where the person who lived the
unconventional life pays for it in the end and is to be judged scum of the
earth. The lesson: do not follow in his footsteps, he was an evil man.
Well, gentle reader, I just did the same thing. I presented you with Hunter S.
Thompson as one of my heroes and I suggested to you what meaning he had within
my life – value not as a two dimensional "dope fiend" of erratic habits to be
imitated or shunned, but as a political commentator, a damn fine writer with a
rare gift for satire and parody, and as someone who, in dark places, was a light
for me in many ways.
God sends light and hope and inspiration in the strangest of disguises so that
it reaches many, even those who might otherwise not pay attention. Hunter S.
Thompson was a gift to me from God when I needed one and when I would have
refused to accept it in any other form. Thompson would have laughed at this as
he was a vituperative atheist. But he believes now, I am sure, and I pray he
understands that in this bizarre world sometimes we not only entertain angels
unawares, but that we may be, each of us, angels to someone, angels sent on a
mission we may not even understand.