Juan Thompson, Hunter’s son, releases memoir of growing up with the Gonzo journalist
If You Go ...
What: “Stories I Tell Myself: Growing up with Hunter S. Thompson,” with author Juan Thompson.
When: 5:30 a.m. Monday, Jan. 25.
Where: The Grand View, Lionshead Village.
Cost: $25, $35 after 2 p.m. Monday.
More information: This is part of the Vail Symposium’s Author Series. Juan Thompson’s book tells the story of father and son, through 41 years together, and what it was like to be the son of fearless outlaw journalist and writer Hunter S. Thompson. To buy tickets, go to http://www.vailsymposium.org.
VAIL — Juan F. Thompson is proud of his brilliant and deeply flawed father, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. He says so in his memoir, “Stories I Tell Myself: Growing Up with Hunter S. Thompson.”
His father was also wounded, and Juan says that, too. His book is not a whitewashed biography of Hunter. It’s more a story of fathers and sons.
“I am proud of him and to be his son,” Juan writes near the memoir’s end. “This was a long time coming.”
The book is an honest look at what it was like to be the only child in the tumultuous Thompson home in Woody Creek, how they forged a father-son relationship and an honest look at Hunter’s failing health in old age.
“It started as a desire to counterbalance the portrayals of Hunter, after he died, that focused on the wild man aspect, the crazy things he did, Hunter Thompson as that crazy guy who does lots of drugs. It wasn’t a well-rounded portrait. That is completely missing the point,” Juan said. “I wanted to present my view of Hunter, to let people know there was more to him than the drug thing.”
Beginning at the end
It opens with the end, recounting Hunter’s funeral at Owl Farm in Woody Creek, where a 153-foot cannon fired his ashes into the sky during a massive celebration. Toward the back of the book, Juan offers a loving portrait of his father. Other parts chronicle their failed efforts to connect with each other on the road to their reconciliation as men.
“What I went through with Hunter was not unique. Lots of people had it worse than I did. He was this brilliant, alcoholic guy whose writing always came first, before family or anything else. It is not such a unique story, but it has some unique elements,” Juan said.
He always called him Hunter, never dad. Juan’s son calls Hunter “Ace,” never grandpa.
“When I was a baby, that’s how he referred to himself, and that’s what he wanted me to call him. I tried calling him dad a few times, but it just didn’t sound right. It sounded forced, somehow,” Juan said.
Building fires and cleaning guns became their father-son rituals, extending from Juan’s childhood until Hunter’s final days. Their relationship successfully pivoted when, to celebrate his engagement, Juan shot a gasoline bomb with a shotgun at Owl Farm.
Juan also includes some potentially embarrassing details about his father’s decreasing mobility and declining health, about hospital stays for surgeries in Vail and Glenwood Springs and how they were complicated by Hunter’s heavy drinking. They’re there to help readers understand his father’s 2005 suicide, to which Juan devotes an entire chapter.
“I think it was important for people to know that the alcohol was dissolving his body and breaking it down,” Juan said.
“I and a lot of people close to him knew that when the time came, he was going to kill himself. He wasn’t going to a hospital or a nursing home. Could you imagine Hunter Thompson in a nursing home?
“When the time came, he was going to check out in his own way. That’s who he is,” Juan said.
On that day, Hunter asked Juan to take some family heirlooms: the silver julep cups, some of Hunter’s mom’s things.
“I didn’t know he was going to do it right then, and I’m glad I didn’t. It would have been awful to know or suspect what he was going to do. What am I going to do? Stop him? Help him? Talk him out of it? There’s no good outcome there,” Juan said. “Thank god I didn’t see it.”
Juan and his family had come up for a weekend visit and were in the house when Hunter shot himself — Juan in the next room and his wife and son elsewhere in the house.
“It sounded like something heavy had been dropped or thrown. With Hunter, that’s not unusual,” Juan said.
Juan walked into the room to find Hunter slumped forward like he was asleep. He called Hunter’s name and he didn’t respond.
“Knowing it was going to happen did not prepare me at all. I just lost it. I panicked,” Juan said.
The son did what the father would do. He loaded up Hunter’s nickel-plated 12-gauge shotgun with shells, went outside and emptied it at the sky, releasing raw, primal rage.
Then it got weird, Juan said. First the sheriff arrived and then the news trucks and the deputies keeping them away from the house.
“To see the CNN banner rolling across the screen saying, ‘Hunter Thompson has taken his life,’ it was surreal,” Juan said.
Because it needed to be written
Juan wrote most of his book in 2006, the year after his father committed suicide. He worked on it off and on until 2015.
He did it, he said, because he needed to.
“I wanted to tell the story of how we worked through the obstacles in our relationship. The teenage years when I thought he was really bad, and he could be bad. He was awful to my mom.”
Early chapters offer a bracing picture of a childhood filled with fighting and “verbal death matches” between Hunter and his first wife, Sandy, with Juan caught in the middle.
“I hated him deeply and completely. If I could have called down a god’s wrath on him and destroyed him with a lightning bolt at that moment, I would have done it. He was more than frightening, he was deliberately and carefully cruel — he was evil — and I would have destroyed him if I could have, for my sake and my mother’s,” Juan said.
On the other hand, Juan learned to drive in their first new car — not the Shark. “Fear and Loathing” had come out and was selling well, so they went to Glenwood Springs and bought a brand new Datsun station wagon. Juan was about 13 and taught himself to drive in their circular driveway.
Juan also paints a portrait of growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, as Aspen and Woody Creek transformed from a mix of ranchers and hippies into a wealthy enclave.
Juan is not a writer by trade and did not try to mimic his father’s style. Hunter found his own voice and invented gonzo journalism, blowing down doors for all those who followed, or tried to.
“No one can do it like he did, and no one should try,” Juan said. “He means a lot to a lot of different people, and not just his generation. I’m sometimes amazed at the spirit he represented to so many people.”
Juan lives in Denver and still works in information technology. He likes it there, and said that’s where he’ll stay, working with computers and writing, “working both sides of my brain.”
When he first talked to his agent in 2006 about doing this, his agent told him, “Don’t quit your day job.”
“It remains true today,” Juan said.
He said he’s happy for the book’s success and positive reviews.
“I’m very pleasantly surprised that, first, it’s been reviewed at all and, second, it’s been positive,” Juan said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or email@example.com.