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Hunter's Last Stand
Page added: 1998
Last updated: Winter 2003
by Richard Himes, 1998
this article may not be reproduced without permission from the author
"God DAMN it! Where did you swine go with my money? Gimme $100 damn it!" Hunter was raving. The sight of a leather copy of Screwjack had sent him into a violent, purple rage of envy. "I'm in the market, y'know."
"Just sign it and get him OUTTA here," said his 'handler', a cheap 60 year-old punk with a bad grey ponytail. "Hunter, he's not going to sell it to you."
"GODDAMIT! I'll buy all three for $100 a piece. WHERE IS MY MONEY!?!"
Last night, Halloween 1998, Hunter S. Thompson took time out from his busy schedule of drinking, whoring and carousing to drink, whore and carouse in New York City. At his only booksigning in support of The Rum Diary at the Union Square Barnes & Noble in Manhattan, I finally accomplished a goal I set over 10 years ago. That was when I first read The Curse of Lono by flashlight, in a cabin in the woods of northern Wisconsin. I laughed so loud that the skunks under the floorboards skittered out to take their chances with the owls. Well, last night I met the legend, and it was, surprisingly, not a disappointment.
The signing was scheduled for 7pm and was not announced or advertised outside of the store itself. I only heard about it through my roommate, who has discovered that one can have a legitimate, lively, and free literary social life in New York by going to signings and readings. No other place in America gives its denizen such free and frequent access to literary heavyweights as New York. And this...this was a superstar.
I got in line at 6pm, and there was already a line of about 50 people in front of me. Freaks of every description, some in costume, some in everyday NYC costume. I had a backpack filled with 1st editions and epherma I have collected over the years, including 2 cloth copies of Screwjack (out of an edition of 300), a leather copy of Screwjack (out of an edition of 26) and a first edition of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas I had picked up from a bookstore in NJ for $14. If I could get it signed, my collection would be pretty well complete.
I got in line behind a 6 foot 5 inch, 300 pound Italian who had a jet black goatee that extended all the way down his neck. He was wearing a "Vlad the Impaler" tee shirt. Immediately behind me were 4 malt liquor besotten teens blowing time before a Cypress Hill concert.
The teens were making the guards very nervous. They had only seen "Fear and Loathing" the movie, so I felt the need to educate them. I spent the better part of an hour filling them with half-truths and popular misconceptions about Hunter and his drug predilections. In short order, I had them convinced that he was a 75 year old acid freak who was rarely sober and frequently deranged. A gin-besotten lecher with no sense of propriety whose sense of humor was both violent and deranged. Come to think of it, maybe it wasn't so far from the truth.
By the end of my schpeil, I had given one of them, Art, my can of mace, which he brandished like it was so much deodorant. I had determined that he was by far the most impressionable of the quartet, and I was tired of their drunken charade. I was going to get them kicked out. I succeeded.
The minute the guard saw the mace, he was on full alert. The kid was only about three yards from the guard, but the kid had his back turned and didn't notice the nervous chatter into the walkie-talkie. He did, however, notice me continually pointing at him and rolling my eyes. But he was too drunk to process what I was doing.
When the guard wasn't looking, I egged him on, telling him that Hunter "would laugh his ass off" if he were to mace him.
"Man," I seethed into his ear, mere centimeters from his six earrings, "you really get it. You really understand Hunter. You know that he would love to say that a fan had maced him. He'd invite you to Woody Creek. My god, you could bang his assistant. You would be famous!"
"Yeah!" The kid was drunk and very, very loud. Too loud for comfort, too loud for the guard. "Can you imagine how cool it would be to mace Hunter! He'd think it was fucking great!"
I looked on in mock horror as the guard's eyes widened. He acted swiftly and decisively. Before I knew what was happening, three jacket-and-tie rent-a-cop types were all over the kid. He fell to the floor, and the guards wrestled the mace from his hand. He was wailing like a schoolgirl.
"My God! What are you doing? Hunter is a God! He wants me to mace him! He likes it!"
"You better Hog Tie this kid," I said. "He seems to be an extended security risk."
"You bastard!" The kid was raving. "You lied to me!"
"Never mess with a Doctor of Torts," I warned him as they carried him off, one guard on each limb. His friends were close on his heels, but unable, or perhaps unwilling, to help.
The next hour was much less eventful. There were periodic false sightings, and harried announcements from the bookstore staff that Hunter was "on his way." These were met with collective groans. I took it upon myself to yell "Liar!"
He finally showed at about 8:30, an hour and a half late, a vast improvement from his storied past of no-shows and guns-and-roses-length delays. He had an enviable entourage, though.
Our first clue that he was in the house was a leggy young blond who vaulted onto the stage and started playing a CD which she explained was "Hunter's new CD, all songs hand-chosen by him, which will be out soon."
She also informed the crowd that Hunter would NOT be signing anything. I was crushed. I badly wanted him to sign something, anything, from my collection, which was busy getting warped in my backpack. I resolved to connive and cajole to get my F&L signed, by any means neccessary.
There was a 15 minute delay while Hunter taped an interview with Fox. Then he finally made his appearance. Flanked by Douglas Brinkley (the editor of The Proud Highway, a collection of Hunter's letters), Ed Bradley (of 60 minutes), and Benicio del Torro (who played the attorney in F&L the Movie). Plus his beautiful 20 year old assistant Heidi and his beautiful 20 year old publisher.
Hunter was wearing a rabbit's fur bomber's hat and a pink feather boa. A cheer went up from the audience as he stumbled up the platform, toppling a chair in the process. He was grinning from ear to ear, clearly glad that he could still, after all these years, command a young, unruly crowd. He pulled mightily from a tall glass of scotch, which Heidi dutifully refilled every 10 minutes or so, piling on mountains of ice from a 5 gallon bucket the staff had provided.
He bradished a large knife with a menacing smile, and eyed Bradley nervously. Bradley seemed oblivious. Hunter stood still a moment, took a step back, out of Bradley's periphary vision, and plunged the knife into Bradley's back with a sickening thud. Bradley lurched forward onto the table, coughed once, and then sat bolt upright and smiled. It was a stage knife.
Bradley acted as master of ceremonies, saying that he had a special connection to The Rum Diary, as its manuscript had sat in the kitchen of his Woody Creek home for over a year. Hunter explained later that he had used it as collateral for a loan from Bradley at a time, only two years ago, when he was completely broke.
There were readings from the book by Bradley, Brinkley and del Torro, to which Hunter listened intently and waved his hands like a conductor. Then the real fun began.
The group was reminded that Hunter was not signing anything, and then told to file up, one at a time, to meet and greet the author. Hunter climbed up on the table, removing his boa and bomber's hat. He sat, splay legged, showing off his converse low tops and striped socks, hugging his adoring fans, posing for pictures, and kissing every girl that would oblige him. He gnawed on the hand of one young male admirer, and rubbed off blue make-up from one costumed patron and put a handprint on her paperback copy of F&L.
His handler, a 60 year old in a corduroy jacket and a salt and pepper moustache, was stopping him from signing anything. Hunter was obviously eating up the attention, and was willing to sign anything that was put in front of him. The handler finally hid his pen from him and forcibly removed anyone who loitered too long with a signable item. Hunter plunged the stage knife into people for pictures, grinning madly. A pig in shit heaven.
I chatted with Doug Brinkley while I waited for my turn. He was wildly impressed with my leather Screwjack, showing it around like it was a bar of solid gold. He told me that the next volume of the letters, from the 60s through the 80s, the political years, will be out in about a year.
As I wallked up the stairs, I told him that he was lucky to be working with Hunter, to which he visibly buckled. I had inadvertantly insulted him. Clearly Hunter was incapable of crossing the street without expert supervision, and Brinkley, I think, views Hunter as the walking dead. Hunter, a constant friend in need, is lucky to have anyone around at all.
Finally it was my turn. Brandishing a cloth screwjack, a leather screwjack, and my 1st ed F&L in LV, I marched up to Hunter, grabbed his outstretched hand and said:
"You are my Hemmingway, Hunter. You introduced me to the joys of writing, and for that I have to thank you."
"Ho Hoo!"was Hunter's response. "That's great!" he mumbled. He was smiling wildly.
I showed him the books. He grabbed the leather Screwjack and showed it around. "Hey," he demanded, "did you see this!" He showed it around to his entourage. I forced the F&L into his hands and asked him to sign it. His handler told me he wasn't signing, but if I got back in line, my chances went from no way to maybe. I got my girlfriend to take a picture, and got back in line.
The second time around was better. By this time he was totally plastered. I kept the Screwjacks away from him and handed him the F&L.
"Please, I'm begging you, sign this for me."
"Ohh, lookit this," Hunter mused, ogling the cover of the First Edition. "I'll buy it off you, $100. Goddam it, where's my money....Somebody get me $100."
I looked him in the eye. "Hunter, I can't sell it to you. It means too much to me." I wasn't lying. It was the first collectible book I ever bought; and Hunter is the only author whose books I collect. I had bought it during a time when all my money was going to travel expenses associated with getting to hospitals where my girlfriend of 5 years was dying of cancer. We had discovered Hunter together, and the acquisition of the book represented a special bond at a time when any positive note was vital.
"You don't have to sign that if you don't want to, Hunter." It was Heidi, and she was pissed. Hunter wasn't supposed to be signing anything, and signing a 1st ed. like mine was akin to giving me $1000.
"Heidi, get me $100, goddammit." Hunter was intent on purchasing my book. A $100 bill was handed to him, and he tried to hand it to me.
"Hunter, I can't sell it to you, I told you. Please sign it."
Heidi chimed in with the 'you don't have to' routine. Hunter didn't care about signing it, he just wanted to buy it. His handler was getting agitated.
"Hunter," his handler said forcefully, "he's not going to sell it to you. Just sign it and get him outtta here!"
"Hunter," he said with resignation, "you are about to make this guy a rich man."
"I don't care about that," I retorted, "I could never sell it, it means too much to me."
Hunter finally put my pen to paper and put an HST on the book. This was a book that I had carried, hidden in an inside pocket of my jacket, into the Woody Creek Tavern every night for a week in hopes that he would show up. A book that Aimee and I had read and laughed at together during that painful year. A book I had looked at a thousand times and wondered if I would ever get it signed. A stupid, pointless goal, but it is a sort of connection to the mind of an author who made me want to write, and taught me how to enjoy the music of prose. We all want to be close to our heroes; and if we can't be lucky enough to befriend them, we can only hope to hold onto things that they themselves have held.
Hunter wasn't finished, however. He asked me where I got my copies. "I'm in the market, y'know," he mumbled. "I'll buy those two Screwjacks for $100 apiece, too. Where'd you get them, anyway?"
"I found them on the web. That's where you should look, too."
He stared at me blankly, his head cocked to the side like a old, deaf schnauzer.
"Get on the web, Hunter!" I said as I walked away. Brinkley heard this and started laughing hysterically. Hunter was capable, maybe, of boiling water on his own. He clearly was unable to get on the web, even if he desired.
I tried to shake hands with Brinkley, who is a kindred academic spirit of sorts, but Heidi nearly tackled me in the process. She thought I wanted more from Hunter, and was clearly prepared to kill me to keep me away. Territorial bitch. Hunter doesn't, and will never, owe me anything. The only thing preventing him from signing my most precious possession was his handlers, her included. He didn't care a whit. She just wasn't paying attention.
I reached out my hand to Brinkley, who shook it heartily. "Thanks again for taking the time to go through those letters," I said, and walked off the dias.
Hunter may have ruined his chances at writing the great American novel with his years of drugs. He may no longer be capable of editing his own letters, which is why Brinkley was pissed when I said that he was lucky to be working with Hunter. Clearly Hunter is lucky to be working with Brinkley at this point. Brinkley is a lucid professor of history at the University of Louisiana and the head of the Eisenhower Center. Hunter, on the other hand, is a mere shadow of his former self, reduced to his popular persona. But, like meeting Muhammed Ali, coming face to face with a legend is always gratifiying.
As I pen this, I am having a martini and smoking a fat cigar, sitting alone outside at the Central Park Boathouse. The waitress giggled and batted her eyes when I ordered my Bombay Sapphire Martini, dry, olives, up. She thought I was part of the juice and bruschetta crowd. It's 12 noon, and the NYC Marathon is mere feet behind me.
The constant cheers of "You're almost there" and "Not far now!" are beginning to unnerve me. About a minute ago, my nerves finally went. I stood up and went into a tirade about body nazis and Jim Fix dropping dead at 50 or some such drunken nonsense. Now the cute waitress is pointing at me from behind a shrub, speaking with agitation to a rather burly bartender, who is eyeing me with obvious malice. I guess I'll have to face up to the fact that I have to walk down the marathon route with this huge Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona belching foul green smoke into a crowd of 6 hour finishers in terminal oxygen debt. Selah.