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Review: Juan Thompson recounts growing up gonzo with Hunter

Stories I Tell Myself, a moving and intermittently fascinating memoir from Juan F. Thompson, the son of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, is notable as much for its sensitive depiction of a fraught father-son relationship as it is for any special insight into the legendary author of such classics as Hell's Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Born in 1964, Juan Thompson was the product of Hunter's first marriage, which was dissolving throughout the son's childhood. It turns out that Hunter Thompson was just about what you might expect as a father, "always brilliant, often monstrous, sometimes tender and funny," and essentially ruthless in his self-absorption and drive.

The turmoil of growing up in the household of one of the counterculture's most celebrated figures seems not to have been permanently crippling to Juan Thompson. He displays a rueful resilience and a remarkably generous spirit throughout these pages. A self-described "nerd" who "loved books, computers and fantasy role-playing games" and had "no interest in sports," he is perceptive about the pressure he felt to live up to his father's macho, hyperarticulate swagger.

One doesn't need to be the son of Hunter Thompson, of course, to feel damaged or cowed by a gruff, violent patriarch; that dynamic is common, and Juan Thompson's version is plangent enough to spark identification but perhaps not transcendence. The memoir follows the arc of many paternal relationships, with the son moving from hatred of a father who was a "monster, a bastard and a dangerous man," to empathy and finally halting reconciliation.

Juan Thompson is unflinching in his depiction of his father's decline, and he writes with great emotional openness about Hunter's suicide in 2005, at age 67. The account of the later stages of his deterioration is so harrowing as to provide a stinging rebuke to the countless imitators who took inspiration from Hunter Thompson's hell-for-leather drinking and drug-taking. It makes for grisly reading: Hunter undergoing acute alcohol withdrawal while under anesthesia, losing control of his bowels, urinating in public, lashing out at nurses and doctors.

Most devastating was the unmooring of the mind that for so long had crackled with wit and fury. Through all the drugs and late nights and violence and despair, Hunter Thompson had always taken a soldierly pride in the practice of his vocation, which, despite the constant tumult, he approached with the dedication of a craftsman. "When the going gets weird," he was fond of saying, "the weird turn pro." The slogan took on a talismanic force over the years, only to fail him in the end. In later years "a combination of shame and fear ... drove him to the typewriter late at night," Juan Thompson recalls. "The next morning there might be a page, but sometimes there were only a few sentences. ... It was hard to watch."

Although often engaging, in the end, Stories I Tell Myself feels faintly underpowered. It's neither accomplished enough to ascend to the ranks of memorable literary memoirs nor irreverent enough to qualify as a delicious celebrity tell-all. Juan Thompson is an above-average writer and has a way with an anecdote, but his account lacks the mystic spark that animates truly great writing. The book adds depth and color to our understanding of Hunter Thompson without being terribly surprising or revelatory. For that we may have to wait for someone standing a little further away from the subject.

Stories I Tell Myself: Growing Up With Hunter S. Thompson

By Juan F. Thompson

Knopf, 288 pages, $26.95

Review: Juan Thompson recounts growing up gonzo with Hunter 02/17/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 17, 2016 10:51am]
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