It’s not easy growing up a shy, sensitive, bullied, Dungeons & Dragons-playing child, the kind of friendless boy who hates sports, becomes a vegetarian and in college eats alone in the cafeteria, pretending to read a newspaper while dying inside.
All this is even less easy when your father is Hunter S. Thompson, the gonzo journalist, who was among the most charismatic men of his time. Thompson, the author of “Hell’s Angels” (1967) and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1972), embodied the macho wing of the counterculture.
His idea of a good day involved guns, motorcycles, practical jokes, improvised bombs and a 64-color assortment of recreational drugs. These things rested on top of the whiskey and cocaine he steadily ingested, starting at breakfast, simply to stabilize his mood.
He terrified his son. Juan F. Thompson’s memoir, “Stories I Tell Myself: Growing Up With Hunter S. Thompson,” is a calm book about a wild man. It’s a careful yet harrowing account of an offbeat childhood, and of a father-and-son relationship that grew dark before it began to admit hints of light.
The author was an only child. He grew up mostly just outside Aspen, Colo., where his parents bought a rambling house known as Owl Farm on a large tract of land.
He evokes his life in the shadow of his looming father as if he were telling a sinister fairy tale. If Juan upset his father in the smallest manner, including waking him during the daytime, “he would enter my room huge and terrible like a giant warrior from a Viking legend.”
He would bellow curses. The author often felt he was “caught in the path of a flamethrower.” Juan fled and “hid like a dog.”
Hunter didn’t show up for important moments like graduations and birthday parties. Father and son did bond, somewhat, while cleaning guns or building fires. But Juan rarely received the attention from his father he desperately wanted. Instead he found a series of surrogate fathers. There’s a terrific scene in which Hunter sends Juan to spend a month with Jimmy Buffett on the musician’s sailboat. Buffett taught him about sailing, was “firm and knowledgeable,” and best of all, “there was no fighting, no screaming, just a boatful of slow-moving, stoned, happy people.”
There is a bit too much therapy talk, for my taste. The author gets into yoga and EST and 12-step programs. But who am I to judge? My father didn’t like to get naked and sit on the porch firing large-caliber pistols.
But I am happy to report that Juan found stability in a solid girlfriend and eventually in marriage. They have a son. He has worked as an IT guy.
The most moving portions of this memoir come at the end. Juan helped care for his father when his health began to fail. Hunter would go into life-threatening alcohol withdrawal during his surgeries. Doctors gave him alcohol intravenously, but they couldn’t get the concentration high enough to help him.
There are terrible scenes. Hunter became nearly incontinent. He could barely walk. He could no longer write.
He committed suicide at Owl Farm in 2005, at 67, while his son was in the house. “I heard a weird cry and a crack,” Juan writes. “I thought nothing of it. Hunter was famous for his peculiar vocalizations, and the thump was probably a book he had dropped or thrown.”
Unlike his life, Hunter S. Thompson’s final shot, with a .45, was surgical and precise. There was hardly any mess to clean up
Stories I Tell Myself: Growing Up With Hunter S. Thompson
By Juan F. Thompson
Alfred A. Knopf, 274 pages