What ever happened to Hunter S. Thompson? Lionized by hordes of independent minds ever since the 1971 publication of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (a pro-dope account of a district attorneys' convention on narcotics), Thompson has devoted his life to a single goal testing the limits of the human liver. Three new biographies explain why he has not written anything worth a thimble of peacock poop since 1983: a coked-up self-indulgence beyond the ken of John Belushi, who once fled Thompson's home snuffling and muttering, ''I can't keep up with that guy!''
Even in decline, Thompson is a better prose stylist than his three Boswells. Drab Peter O. Whitmer, with When The Going Gets Weird: The Twisted Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson, has the edge on drabber Paul Perry and his Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson. And, oddly, E. Jean Carroll, a worse faux-porn writer than Erica Jong, has produced the most amusing book of the three, Hunter: The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson. Just skip the silly fantasy chapters about a fictional character's sexual torture by Thompson and flip to the crisply edited reminiscences of his friends they make the book as irresistible as Edie, the best-selling oral bio of Andy Warhol's starlet Ms. Sedgwick.
All three of these books exist to be strip-mined for anecdotes: Thompson swilling 20 double Wild Turkeys at a four-hour editorial meeting, or draping a wild boar's testicles on the rearview mirror of a Big Sur religious leader, then dumping the animal's head in the idyllic hot springs of which he was supposed to be the caretaker.
Any coward can beat his wife, but Thompson allegedly whomped her during his first meeting with the publisher of his first book; he also allegedly knocked around his mynah bird, and one girlfriend claimed he tossed her naked into the snow, then passed out, enabling her to sneak back in the house. Perhaps he faked injecting gin into his stomach (Perry says he inserted the syringe into a hollow ball concealed under his belt), and he may have exaggerated the drugs he took in Las Vegas. Even so, his life does have a certain integrity.
But is he still a writer? His first role model when he was a Louisville, Ky., delinquent was Scott Fitzgerald, and he shares with Fitzgerald a dependence on the energy of a youth culture and an unconscious composition process he can't understand, let alone control.
The important difference is that Fitzgerald worked methodically at his writing, while Thompson can't tolerate discipline of any kind. In his youth, he typed out Gatsby for practice, to get the feel. Vegas is the polished result of four or five drafts. Now he just raps out and faxes any rant that comes to mind. According to Perry, Hunter's first publisher, Ian Ballantine, feels certain that his protege's literary ruin is the result of irreversible brain damage. If we sawed into Thompson's gonzo bean to check this out, would he even notice?
At 53, says Perry, Thompson sometimes sits up late playing his tape of an LSD-soaked gang bang at Ken Kesey's cabin in 1965, where, while her husband watched, a woman had sex with Hell's Angels and academics, ''sort of like a bunch of cats toying with a mouse,'' as Thompson recalled. ''Creepy as hell, but it stays with you because it's the kind of stuff you use when you write,'' said Thompson. Sometimes you write, Hunter. And sometimes you just use. Whitmer: B Perry: B- Carroll: B+