“He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”
Where were you when the fun stopped? Juan F. Thompson, son of the late American author and journalist, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, will always remember where he was when his father died: in the next room. This February will mark ten years since the Kentucky native and celebrated counter culture icon killed himself in the kitchen of his Woody Creek, Colorado home.
If you’re not familiar with the name Juan F. Thompson, there’s no need to be an apologetic rube. He’s just what some in society would classify as a “normal” guy; a married family man who works in I.T. Boring! The ultimate hell-raiser, huh? Considering that his father, Hunter S. Thompson, the widely celebrated author and creator of Gonzo journalism, was an unabashed lifelong alcoholic and drug addict who loved blowing shit up with powerful guns and explosives and causing trouble everywhere he went, is a real accomplishment. To the outside observer and fan — including me — Hunter S. Thompson was a literary titan. A smart, witty, successful Kentuckian whose writing covered the changing social and political landscapes of the 60’s and 70’s. While living life to the extreme, he took it all the way to the edge, and at times, slightly over. I’ve read and own almost every book he’s published, some of which are actually signed by the late author himself.
He wrote in a style later coined Gonzo journalism, where the writer is part of the story, often told from a first-person perspective, involving unbelievable events and circumstances, yet grounded in reality with exaggeration, humor and sarcasm. Although Thompson published a number of works such as Hell’s Angels, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, The Rum Diary, and Generation of Swine, his most famous opus, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream was widely considered to be his greatest and most memorable literary contribution. Actors Bill Murray and Hunter’s fellow Kentuckian and later friend Johnny Depp have both portrayed him on the big screen.
With the release of Juan’s recent memoir, Stories I Tell Myself: Growing Up With Hunter S. Thompson, fans who have long celebrated Hunter S. Thompson as a pop culture icon are confronted with Juan’s intimate stories and, at times, painful memories of what it was like to be the son of such a larger-than-life character and legend of the written page. Juan describes his father this way:
“A complex man, far too complex for me to completely know or understand. He was famous, almost worshiped in some circles, unknown to others, brilliant, a grand master of the written word and one of the great writers of the twentieth century. He was an alcoholic and drug fiend, a wild angry, passionate, sometimes dangerous, charismatic, unpredictable, irresponsible, idealistic, sensitive man with a powerful and deeply rooted sense of justice. Most important to me, though, he was my father and I was his son.”
From the beginning, the book serves as a catharsis for Juan; the purging of contrasting emotions and memories that up until now, he’s never talked about, at least in the public realm. As a reader, it felt as though I was sitting in a room with Juan sharing a beer while he described mundane everyday life, as well as harrowing tales of fear and terror under the Thompson roof. The book is an easy read, and the tone and pace are steady; however, that’s not to say that Juan doesn’t address some really heavy issues like loneliness, fear, love, divorce, trust and familial instability, all of which were exasperated by living within the the literal shadows of a wildly volatile and erratic chain-smoking, whiskey-guzzling, cocaine-snorting caricature of a man. Juan channels his emotions in a logical way, a style that is a stark contrast to the widely dramatic fashion characteristic of his father’s work. He chronicles his life from his birth to his formative years to his adulthood, all while paralleling his fathers’ career to show the reader where he fit in, or actually didn’t. Juan struggled to find his place and love in his father’s world. He describes Hunter’s priorities as follows:
“He was first and always a writer in the best and highest sense of the word, in which writing is a vocation, not an occupation. Everything else was secondary. Drugs, family, lovers, friends, sex, adventure, they all came after writing.”
It’s a telling account, incredibly touching at times, but also a sad and relatable story of a lonely child desperately yearning to find love and connection with a father whom, at times, he deeply despised, but ultimately loved. The younger Thompson allows readers a glimpse into a rarely seen and never talked about world of life with Hunter. Juan is reflective yet careful even when he’s exposing his most private pain. “Stories I Tell Myself,” while focusing on the inner relationships between father, son, mother and other transitory surrogate father figures, is a soul-searching account. There are lessons here for everyone about human nature: the memories we choose and choose to forget, our experiences and how we let them define or refine us, and the brutal reality that we are all, at our core, deeply flawed.