back to the Black Table

When I was a young lad, all full of sugar and spice and everything nice, nothing terrified me more, with the possible exception of mutant chickens born with razors for feet, than reading aloud in class.

Sure, I could write the little book reports just fine, making myself sound more intelligent than I actually was, wowing the teacher by using words such as "pathos," "infinitesimal" and "polymorphous genitalia." But when it came time to physically sit there and recite my essays before the unforgiving eyes of my classmates, bearing down on me like a two-by-four to the brain, I would falter every time. I would begin to stutter, I'd speed up until I sounded like that guy in the Micromachines commercial, I'd skip whole sentences, I'd lose my place, I'd take a good 20 seconds between the last word on one page and the first word on the next. It was a disaster. After five minutes of hemming, hawing and "p-p-p-plasterb-b-b-board," Mrs. McRoberts would cry uncle and go to the next student, and I would ready myself for the wedgies and swirlies that inevitably waited.

Mercifully, once you're done with school, save for bedtime stories to young lovers or recitations of civil-court records, you don't have to read out loud anymore. Which is fine. Everything I write, as silly as it reads on the page, is 10 times worse when I speak it. That last sentence, verbally, comes out something like "Eddeytang ehwrit, azzilly azzit rids undapag, ez tin tehms wuss onze uhspickit." Often, when I read something aloud, owners of dogs that happen to be walking by are horrified to see their pets' heads burst into flames.

So how, I ask with considerable alarm and incalculable horror, did I end up sitting in the study of one Hunter S. Thompson, reading aloud to him not only one of my stories, but also one of his own?

It's my fault, of course, as always. We'd met Hunter at the Woody Creek Tavern and done the "interview" part of our visit, which mostly consisted of incoherent warblings and flying pieces of lime, tossed across the patio by Mr. Gonzo. Cordially, Hunter invited us out to his cabin for a tour and a little CNN-watching.

Nervous as high hell, I found myself scrambling for conversation topics. I've always admired Thompson and am a huge fan of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, not to mention his great "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved" piece featured in The Best American Sportswriting of the Century, but, well … he's Eric's hero, not mine. I feel the guy burned out years ago and, honestly, hasn't written anything that's truly inspired me since, well, since before I was born. Now he sits in his den and publishes old letters and smokes hash. Not a bad way to live, mind you, but not as rousing as I need my heroes to be.

I was freaked. What could I possibly have to say that Hunter S. Thompson could even find remotely worth listening to? What could I contribute? Eric could exchange war stories of covering politics, of life on the road, of existence as a walking id. Not me. I would be more likely to hope he flipped to Headline News so I could check out whether the Cardinals won or not.

Flailing for potential dialogue, Hunter made a comment that sprung me into action. We were mulling around his kitchen, meeting his assistants, chatting about his upcoming books, when he mentioned that book agents are some of the lowest forms of scum he knows and that they prey on young, inexperienced writers, milking them of all their creativity and then spitting them out any available orifice.

At last, we had a mutual speaking ground. Yes, I am a young, inexperienced writer easily milked of creativity and spat out orifices, but I also recently signed with a book agent. Two for two. Time to chime in.

"Actually, sir, ahem, it's funny you should mention that. I just, you see, cough, signed with a book agent. Am I in trouble? Ha. Ha."

"Well, who's your agent there?"

"Chicken Broth Inc. (not the real name, obviously; I can't believe these people will even talk to me, so I'm in no particular hurry to upset them by implying that Hunter S. Thompson doesn't like them)."

"Oh, those guys, they're crazy fuckers. They'll screw you, they will, sure as shit."

Now, to be honest, Hunter's professional advice did not send me scrambling to the phone to change agents. Being classified by Hunter S. Thompson a "crazy fucker" is hardly either a rare occurrence or one that holds an immense amount of credibility. It's kind of like Joe Lieberman telling someone they have droopy jowls or George W. Bush advising a friend to smile more sincerely.

But this exchange got Hunter going. "I tell you, I had plenty of dealings with those guys way back. I wrote about it, too. Here." He then handed me a copy of The Proud Highway, yet another collection of letters Hunter wrote to various acquaintances. "Check that index for Chicken Broth Inc." I flipped through skeptically and found seven different pages on which the agency was mentioned.

"Found anything?" I had, and I skimmed through a paranoid rambling note about Chicken Broth Inc. being, I dunno, decadent and depraved or something. I told him I found a particularly amusing (a lie) letter. "Read it."

I flashed forward 40 years. Thanks to a meteoric rise in the national illiteracy rate in the year 2025, I have somehow made it as a successful author. I've become a self-indulgent recluse who is thrilled only by his own excesses. Every visitor I have … "Hey, read me that column about Ben Stein. How about the one about all the women I've kissed? Didn't I write something about Hunter S. Thompson one time? Read me that one. Read it!"

Shiver. "Oh, jeez, sir, I'm not a very good reader." "Naw, go ahead and read it. Go ahead. Hey, Anita [his attractive twentysomething assistant], come over here. He's gonna read one of my old letters." She walked over. There was no turning back.

Ahem. "Um, OK. Here goes." Then I sat there, reading Hunter S. Thompson to Hunter S. Thompson. This is a most frightening thing. Do I try to make it sound like his voice? Do I do a Hunter S. Thompson impersonation? What if I misunderstand it and put the emphasis on the wrong words? What if he shoots me?

It wasn't too bad, all things considered. I talked too fast, of course, sporadically being stopped by Hunter to slow down. He chuckled a lot, particularly when I read something particularly scathing. I imagined what it must be like, hearing your own voice from 30 years ago. The memories, the fear, the timelessness. I wonder if he has people read him stuff he's written recently. I doubt it.

I finished up; it was only about an 800-word letter. It was over. I was done. Back to hiding in the corner.

Then Eric began to tell him more about IssuePaper, about how we'd been writing about this visit, how the specter of it loomed over the entire road trip. "Hey, read that."

So that was it. The man wasn't necessarily enamored of his own writing; he just liked being read to. I found something achingly sweet about that. A man truly in love with words. I thought about Eric. His boyhood hero, asking him to read one of his own pieces to him. This is both a fantasy and a nightmare of any writer. Your muse, the man who made you decide to be a writer and a journalist in the first place, wanting you to read your own work to him. Another shiver.

Eric's piece was funny, and Hunter laughed heartily, or as heartily as a man who has done that many drugs can laugh at the age of 62. It was cute to watch Eric -- who, it might be argued, lives a Hunter S. Thompson impression -- try to vocalize the way Hunter talks without offending him. He finished, too -- it was amazing how reading the pieces felt like a baptism; at the end, we were pulled out of the water and allowed to breathe again - and it was mentioned that I'd written something about Hunter, too. "Read that."

It was one thing to read his own writing to him, and it was another thing to watch Eric read his stuff. But me? Hell, I don't write like Hunter S. Thompson. I write like, I don't know, a blind and rabid muskrat with no hands, maybe? Even more worrisome: Like in this piece, I had kind of ripped on Hunter, mocking him for being a crazy old man shooting at imaginary bears and his assistants. I had little desire to upset the man in his own home; being a typical potshot artist, I was far more comfortable doing that miles away, thank you.

So I cheated. More comfortable with reading now, I just edited myself as I went, taking out anything that might be perceived as mean on the fly. I doubt he would have cared, really, or if he was really listening at all. It was a completely wimp move, I'm aware, but I did it and I stand behind it. Well, not really.

Done. Baptism over. No more to read. "Good work, man. Funny." Odd, I never felt as encouraged by Mrs. McRoberts. I think I might get to like this Hunter S. Thompson character yet.