Four Men in May (Part 2): Hunter S. Thompson, Joshua Preston


This is the follow-up to my last post, “Four Men in May (Part 1): Memory, Oscar Wilde, and Aldous Huxley,” where I am posting four letters written by four men in the May before their twenty-third birthday. From Part 1:

The title “Four Men in May,” then, is meant to be not only literal but symbolic: these men are in the “May” – the spring – of their life. Aged twenty-two, the cold of winter is just a dream and there’s no telling where the road ahead goes. There’s no guarantee of success; there’s only a series of days and acts snapping the ever-changing future into place.

Having already met Oscar Wilde (1877) and Aldous Huxley (1917) we now fast-forward forty-three years to meet a young Hunter S. Thompson on the run …

Hunter S. Thompson: May 25, 1960

The journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson needs no introduction and therefore I’m reluctant to even write one. A writer, Thompson was a member of the “New Journalism” (his own brand being called “Gonzo”) with his most infamous work being the book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971). If you don’t know who he is, shame on you. Fix that (and start by reading this obituary written for Rolling Stone: “The Final Days at Owl Farm“).

As for the context of this letter, during this period Thompson was living in Puerto Rico writing his first book The Rum Diary, freelancing, and generally struggling to survive (with mixed success). The following is excerpted from The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967 (1997) edited by Douglas Brinkley (pages 215-216).

The letter is dated May 25, 1960 with the note “Loiza Aldea, Puerto Rico.”

Dear Laurie:

This letter is written in the midst of making plans for an immediate departure for Spain. The Peurto Ricans want to put me in jail for a year — breach of peace and resisting arrest. No dice, Jack. They’ll have to run me down like a black convict.

At any rate, I now have a common-law wife. Excellent girl, white, good worker, and speaks tolerable Spanish. She’ll accompany me to Spain. A friend of mine from New York is there with his wife, has a 12-room house near Gibraltar on the coast. From there — god only knows.

San Juan is rotten. Highest cost of living anywhere in the Western Hemisphere except Caracas. I live 15 miles from town, on the beach, 4-room house, motor scooter, no job, writing free-lance stuff for Stateside newspapers, also fiction, so many bugs I can barely breathe, wife here and cooking, no money, vagrant artist from New York also living here, has sailboat, all in all life is not bad.

I have made friends with the negroes, the lizards, and the postal inspector. Now racking my former employer up with the labor relations board. Fabulous sunsets. Terrible food. Cheap rum. Eat much rice and more spaghetti, drink rain-water. We are only white people in Spanish-speaking negro community of Loiza Aldea. Life is not dull.

What the hell is this “answer to life” you’re jabbering about? Try to put it on paper and help me get a grip on things. My life is a wild merry-go-round and I’m beginning to feel like a big hungry jack-rabbit, hopping from one part of the world to another in a frenzy of greed and violence.

Look up a friend of mine … named Banks Shepherd. He’s a captain and he’ll probably be in the purchasing office. If not, look in the Base Directory: William Banks (or W.B.) Shepherd. You may like him and you may not — try it and see.

No word from Ann Frick since December. Sealey never answered the two letters I wrote him, and I damn well won’t try again until he reciprocates. Who the hell is he engaged to?

Next letter will probably be from Spain, so write me there and avoid waste of time. HST

Joshua Preston: May 7, 2013

Yes, I understand that including a letter of my own must appear pretentious and arrogant, but I do

this not because I believe I’m worthy of such high company (I don’t and I’m not). Instead, I include it here because while we know how their stories ended, ahead of me there are only possibilities. Nothing is certain.

Furthermore, I’ll provide no introduction since – truthfully – writing about myself makes me uncomfortable. All I’ll say is that this was a letter written to friend, before it really hit me that I’d be graduating from college soon. As it may be apparent: life was sweeping me up and I was trying my best to not stand in the way.

It is dated May 7, 2013, noted “Minneapolis, MN – 5:13pm”). This was originally handwritten but for your mocking pleasure I left in all of the errors, misspellings, and unnecessary tense changes.

[Recipient’s name],

Bare feet against the rail of the balcony, it’s a fine day in Minneapolis and it’s amazing what a phone can do nowadays: Bob Dylan radio. To my right, across the Mississippi, is the University. From here it all looks so plain and the tarnished silver sheets of the Weisman Art Museum so ugly in the sunlight. Having spent the day inside chatting about post-apocalyptic asteroid utopias with a friend, my eyes struggle to adjust to the light. This is life.

It doesn’t seem like much – the mundaneness of the present – but I’ve realized it’s a big day for me. Rolling off the couch on only a few hours’ sleep I slummed across the street to my Sex, Evolution, and Behavior class. The subject was religion and the many characteristics the world religions share. A student insisted that Atheism is a religion because “even though it’s not it still is, you know?” I roll my eyes at the comment, take my notes, and rush away to mail some letters as soon as class is over. While I’ll end up dragging my feet through the rest of the day, there’s work I’ve got to get done.

And then, as I’m planning my week, it hits me: that was my last undergraduate class ever. (Technically there’s one more this Thursday but I’m skipping it because I’ll be in California checking out the University of Southern California’s graduate programs). In fact, as I write this now I realize I probably wrote to you regarding my first day of college as a PSEO student about five years ago. It’s funny how life comes full circle sometime. Here’s hoping the next rotation is as exciting as the last. For me as well as you.

Last night I was officially recognized as a Mondale Research Fellow at the Humphrey School. I thought it’d be a student-focused low-key kind of thing but it happened at this public leadership dinner that only reminded me of how unpolished I am for primetime. Every once in a while I’m reminded of my class and awkwardness – this was one of those whiles. As one of the youngest people in the room there were many faces I recognized but none I would feel comfortable approaching. The University’s Board of Regents, the President, R.T. Rybak, some mayoral candidates, Jim Graves, big donors from the cities were all there. The people being recognized for their work included Daniel Glickman, the former Secretary of Agriculture (1995-2001), and this guy who was the prime minister of Portugal, the former president of the Socialist Internationale, and is now the higher commissioner of the UN’s commission on refugees. After a glass of wine I ended up chatting with the two award recipients and had a good time. The former explained to me that our generation shouldn’t temper our idealism and should take as many risks politically as possible (something I’ve been struggling with lately). The latter, when asked about the possibility of us seeing a treaty re: the state of environmental refugees, reminded me of how stressful international politics must be: “Not a chance! The ’51 agreement [on refugees] would never pass today. The member states are too resistant.”

I actually had dinner with the commissioner’s assistant, a young man only 15 months on the job, who happened to sit at the table of Mondale Fellows. He was a really cool guy and it was refreshing to see a young generation so close to power on these kind of issues. I find it inspiring, actually. Here’s a young dude actively working to make the world a better place and wiling to even go into the nitty-gritty of negotiations when it comes to convincing a state to take in refugees. I found him so engaging that I invited him and the commissioner out to lunch, but he told me that wouldn’t be possible: apparently they had a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry the next day.

[The old “I have to talk to the secretary of state about the Syrian refugee crisis” excuse.]

I don’t know how this became my life. It really is surreal and I never feel as if I’m taking advantage of it as much as I could be. I don’t know what I mean by this but I feel undeserving and stupid. I’m just some dude writing poetry and drinking too much whiskey.

There’s a lot of other things happening in my life but they aren’t worth getting into much detail here. If there’s anything you’d like me to expand upon, just ask.

My plane will be getting back from USC late Friday/early Saturday. I’ll be rushing public transit back here (my friend’s apartment) where I’ll nap for a few hours before hitting the road at sunrise. I graduate Saturday afternoon. Sunday I’ll (presumably) be nursing a hangover while finishing up an assignment or two due the following week. As soon as I’m officially officially done with school I’ll then be locking myself in a letterpress shop with another friend of mine to work on a small zine we got a grant to publish. It’s tentatively called Five Poems About Rural Minnesota and we’ll be selling it/releasing it at a Rural Arts and Culture Summit I’ll be speaking at in early June. Hopefully that same month I’ll be flown out to Maryland for the National Rural Assembly but there are some thing that need to be worked out – for example, whether I’ll even be speaking there. Once all of this is done I’ll hopefully know whether I received a writers’ grant to finish a poetry manuscript. If I don’t get that then my life becomes a little more complicated. By July/August I’d like to be moved to Houston where I’ll be doing research with a guy named David Eagleman. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and even if I’m living in a hostel, I’d be a fool not to go.

Tell me about your Americorps work. I think we may have talked about its prospects in the past but I didn’t know until your letter that you got it. Congrats! So what life skills are you teaching your high schoolers? Do they know about all of your alternate identities?

You smell the season’s discontent as well? It smells so much like decomposition to me, the melting snow revealing what’s come and hasn’t quite had the chance to leave yet. Simply, I’ve learned to avoid the stench by moving.

My best wishes and a poem,

Joshua

Re-reading this, it just dawned on me: I skipped both the first and last days of my undergraduate career (both times unintentionally). Oh well.

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3 thoughts on “Four Men in May (Part 2): Hunter S. Thompson, Joshua Preston

  1. Pingback: Four Men in May (Part 1): Memory, Oscar Wilde, and Aldous Huxley | A Prairie Populist

  2. Pingback: Garrison Keillor to Robert Bly: “Few poets can re-order our consciousness…” | A Prairie Populist

  3. Pingback: A Letter on “Hope.” | A Prairie Populist

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