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Glowing Permission Slip 

Fear and Loathing in Opryland ... Poppy Gets in Trouble at School Š Teaching Scum at UNO Š Local Writers Assess Thompson's Enduring Influence ...

The first chapter of Hunter S. Thompson's 1971 counterculture classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas contains the most infamous inventory ever recorded in American letters. The list of illicit plants, potions, powders and poisons Thompson -- in the persona of his alter ego, Raoul Duke -- stocked in the trunk of his rented convertible reads like a telegram from the forbidden planet of adulthood, delivered to the millions of teenagers who have consumed the text as a rite of passage.

For most of these kids, it's just a phase -- decadence and self-destruction as a shortcut to creative genius. They eventually leave Thompson behind on the shelf, next to The Anarchist Cookbook. Some, though, wind up signing on as members of Thompson's odd and varied fraternity of people who try to make it their life's work to transmit truth regardless of the cost. For them, the good doctor's impact and departure are both strongly felt.

Tom Piazza, whose most recent novel, My Cold War (ReganBooks/Harper Collins), is set in the cultural and political fluxtime of Thompson's '60s heyday, remembers reading the serialized version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in Rolling Stone when it first came out. "There we were reading it, this little gang of misfits," says Piazza. "And it had come along at a time when there was this confluence of paranoid tendencies, the ambient political paranoia that probably started with the JFK assassination and this drug-induced paranoia. Thompson sat right in the middle of those, and it was his genius to fuse the two things with a manic sense of fun, possibility and humor. His work made you feel that there was a way of negotiating this treacherous, savage scenario and maintain."

Thompson's body of work can become a glowing permission slip signed from on high. "I wrote a piece, True Adventures With the King of Bluegrass (Vanderbilt University Press) that one reviewer called Œfear and loathing in Opryland,'" says Piazza. "And I must say, in that piece -- which plunged into some odd, unusual, hallucinatory, nightmarish situations -- I felt a certain sanction to go with it based on having read Hunter S. Thompson."

Writers who came to his work later on also recall that energy -- that fusion of paranoiac revelations and warnings with a sense of affirmation -- as a powerful elixir. Joseph Boyden, whose new novel, Three Day Road (Viking), comes out in May 2005, recalls: "He was a huge impact on me, if not my writing per se. I read Hell's Angels first, when I was 15, and as I became political, it helped shape that. And as a writer, his work said to me that the sky's the limit, you can take chances and stretch boundaries."

The freedom and daring that electrified Thompson's work inspired novelist Poppy Z. Brite to start an underground newspaper in high school. "It got me in lots of trouble with the school administration, made me lots of interesting new friends, and gave me a taste for having my work read by the public," she recalls.

Thompson's rallying cry to look at the world critically and then share what you found could be difficult to ignore, says Abram Himelstein, author of Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing and founder of New Mouth From The Dirty South Press. "That much honesty can make the remainder of high school painful, with visions of Thompson calling it like it is juxtaposed with making sure you have the hall pass in your hand in order to go to the bathroom."

As a journalist, Thompson's aggressive immersion into his own stories made waves that were ultimately absorbed into the canon. "It impresses me that he could take all those drugs and be such a great reporter," says Michael Patrick Welch, the author of The Donkey Show and columnist for OffBeat who also performs music as "White Bitch." "People who have done that since then don't have his respect for journalism, people who write stories on drugs or stories about themselves. Hunter Thompson begat so much garbage and terrible writing, because people make the mistake of trying to do it without his chops."

Darv Johnson, assistant professor of journalism at UNO, teaches Thompson's essay "The Scum Also Rises" in several of his classes. "I pitch him as an antidote to the more formal, structured stuff," says Johnson. "When I teach him in my undergraduate feature writing class, a lot of students don't know how to react. A lot of them like the freedom and the exuberance. And he should be taught -- he represents a radical, abrupt turn in journalism, for better or for worse. But he takes some explaining. In terms of his writing, his reporting, his style. He's a great reporter, but I do beseech my students not to try and write like that."

His sly alchemy, the twisted reality, meant that Thompson couldn't help but alter any situation he covered. Yet his keen ability to root out not just the facts but the truth of a situation, made for fine, if patently impossible-to-imitate reportage. "I wonder if people who dismiss him as Œjust a druggie writer' have read him," says Brite. "Had he never invented Œgonzo,' he would still have been a brilliant stylist and a compelling journalist. Š He helped me develop an appreciation for finding exactly the right word -- the word that makes you laugh even as it stabs you in the gut -- and a determination to tell the truth whenever possible, in every context."

Thompson's choice of exit from this world may be saddening and confusing, but perhaps those demons squalling in his head were inseparable from the imperative he felt to tell us the rock-solid truths about our country during the years he burned through it. Himelstein sums it up: "Hunter Thompson made a career out of saying the inappropriately true. His reporting wasn't the flat-footed shit from the edge of the cliff -- 'Well, America, it looks like a long fall from here.' He asked what the folks standing around thought of the experience of falling, grabbed a few goodies in one hand, a typewriter in the other, some snot-nose intern who thought he was a genius with his third hand, and went over. Taking good notes while falling."


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