That Guy

In early October, Mary and I climbed into the Jeep and drove from Pennsylvania to Louisville, Kentucky, where we were both guests at a fairly new convention called Imaginarium. The organizers put on an excellent event. It is geared primarily towards writers, and it encompasses all genres. I highly recommend investing the money and traveling to the next Imaginarium, particularly if you are a beginning author. There were some fantastic, informative panels, and some wonderful networking opportunities.

As we drove across the Appalachians, we debated taking a detour to see the Mothman Museum in West Virginia, or the Serpent Mound in Ohio, but ultimately, we decided to push ahead to the convention, and not stop until we reached Louisville. Mary was looking forward to signing and selling books, and doing some promotion for her latest novel, Chills. Me? As I told you last week, I’d had enough of signings and sales and promotion. I was looking forward to catching up with old friends in the area—authors Maurice Broaddus, Jerry Gordon, Mehitobel Wilson, and Deb Kuhn, publisher Jason Sizemore of Apex, and many others. If I had not been given the gift of bourbon by my fans and readers during the tour (at this point in the narrative, I was up to ninety-eight bottles), I might have also been looking forward to taking a few distillery tours, and seeing if I could discover a bourbon I had yet to taste in life.

But mostly, I was looking forward to seeing all of the Hunter S. Thompson attractions Louisville has to offer.

Much has been written by others about the obvious literary influence authors such as Richard Laymon, Stephen King, and J.M. DeMatteis had on me, and all of that is very true. What often gets overlooked, however, is the impact Hunter S. Thompson had on me. Maybe it’s because more people read my zombie novels than my political writing, but yeah, if there’s a Mount Rushmore of “Writers That Influenced Brian Keene,” then Hunter S. Thompson is the fourth face.

If Stephen King is our modern-day Charles Dickens (and I believe he is, say thankee) then Hunter S. Thompson is most certainly our modern-day Mark Twain. His work—both fiction and non-fiction—was simultaneously incendiary, profane, hilarious, and heartfelt. His insight into both politics and human nature are unequaled in our modern era’s literary canon. He helped bring down Richard Nixon, introduced middle-America to the counterculture, and predicted an entire decade’s worth of world events with eerie accuracy a day after 9/11. He was problematic. His alcohol and drug consumption were infamous, as was his abuse of editors, publishers, and other writers who crossed him. He was adored by both the Left and the Right, but skewered both with equal fervor. He could be abusive, and by all accounts was probably not the best husband or father. And yet, he inspired a fierce loyalty in those around him, winning over his detractors or crushing them beneath his typewriter keys. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Hell’s Angels. The Rum Diary. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved. The Curse of Lono. And so many more.

Louisville, Kentucky was where Hunter S. Thompson grew up. Of course, there would be memorials and attractions to this great American writer.

Except there weren’t.

Well, okay. There are two murals, and they are both sort of neat to look at, but neither of these have any sort of official capacity. There’s no HST Museum, no Information Center, or anything like that. Via Google, I found the address for Thompson’s childhood home. It is currently a private residence. Surprisingly, it is not listed on any sort of historic register, and doesn’t enjoy the benefit of any local, state, or federal historical significance. I get that people live there. I get that they don’t want a sign in their yard saying “HUNTER S. THOMPSON SLEPT HERE” or fans clomping through their kitchen, but you’d think such a site might be privy to the same protections as similar locations of historical and cultural importance. Morgantown, West Virginia has a statue of their famous son, actor Don Knotts. You can’t go twelve feet in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania without finding a bronze plaque informing you of which Civil War General took a shit in that spot.

Louisville has none of that. It’s almost as if the city wants to disassociate themselves from Thompson. Indeed, later that weekend, I signed books for a reader who had lived in Louisville all his life, and he confirmed for me that the majority of the city’s elite are embarrassed by its connection to this great American writer, and don’t understand the hoi polloi’s continuing adoration of him.

Mary and I drove to his childhood home, and parked on the street. It was early afternoon on a Thursday. I couldn’t tell from outside if the people who live there now were home or not, but I still wanted to be respectful. I wasn’t about to march up and knock on the door and demand to be shown inside the home or break a splinter of wood off the front porch to keep as a souvenir. I’ve had well-meaning fans show up at my door before, and I know how that feels. Indeed, it was one of the things that led to my last divorce. (The worst incident was right around the time City of the Dead came out. My wife-at-the-time and I were having a barbeque with about thirty friends in attendance. At one point in the afternoon, my wife wandered into the kitchen and found three teenagers sitting at our kitchen table. She asked them who they were, and they said they were fans of mine, and had seen the party going on, and snuck inside, hoping to meet me. When they asked her who she was, she informed that that she lived there, and then told them—a nicely as possible—to get the fuck out. The next day, I got a P.O. Box and began scrubbing my address from the Internet.)

But I digress.  

Hunter S. Thompson’s childhood home.
(Photo Copyright 2016 Mary SanGiovanni)

So, yeah. I wanted to be mindful of that, and respectful of their privacy and boundaries…but I also wanted my picture taken in front of the house, because it was important to me, and because one thing this year on the road had taught me was that we may never come back to any of these places again.

I sat down on the porch steps, and Mary quickly snapped my photo, and then we left so as not to cause any discomfort or disturbance.

As we walked back to the Jeep, we passed a postal carrier, making her rounds.

“Excuse me.” I pointed back to the house. “We’re from out of town. I was wondering if the city does anything to recognize that landmark?”

She shrugged. “Well, I think that guy used to live there …?”

“Um…that guy?”

“Yeah,” she answered. “That guy. I forget his name. If you’re looking for landmarks, there’s a whole bunch of Johnny Depp stuff.”

I stood there, blinking and sputtering. Mary ushered me back to the Jeep before anything else could happen.

*   *   *

That night, in bed in our hotel room at Imaginarium, Mary asked me what I was thinking about.

“That guy,” I answered.

“Which guy? The one downstairs who hollered at you about the ending to The Rising?”

“No. The postal carrier. She said ‘that guy.’ She didn’t even know who the fuck Hunter S. Thompson was, and she’s delivering mail to his childhood fucking home! I mean, he hasn’t even been dead—what? A decade?”

“Two-thousand five,” Mary answered. “I remember, because you mourned for a month.”

“So, a dozen years and change. Such a short amount of time, and his legacy has already been reduced to ‘that guy.’ One of the greatest writers in American history, and he’s ‘that fucking guy’ even in his hometown.”

“Well,” Mary soothed, “he was a cult writer. Underground.”

“So am I. So were Jesus and Pic. I was always sort of proud of that. It was cool, being a cult writer. It had a sort of dignity. But is this what we have to look forward to? We bust our fucking asses, always existing in borderline poverty, but we figure, hey, at least we gave the world The Rising or Survivor or A Choir of Ill Children. And then fucking cancer cuts us down and the next day we’re just ‘that guy’? Is that it? That’s our legacy? What the hell is the point?”

“If Pic were here, he’d tell you the point is that this is what we are meant to do,” Mary answered. “What was it he used to say?”

“That if he was stranded on a desert island, he would write stories in the sand with a stick. And that’s how he knew he was meant to be a writer.”

“And that applies to the rest of us, as well.”

“Fuck that noise,” I said. “I want a do-over. I want to learn computer programming or welding. I don’t want to be ‘that guy.’”

“You’re not that guy to me,” Mary replied. “Or to your boys. Or your friends.”

She turned off the light and eventually fell asleep. I lay there for a long time, staring at the ceiling.

It was time, I decided, to rescue Jesus from his resting place. But it was also unfair of me to drag Mary and Dave and Phoebe into it. This was something Jesus had tasked me and me alone with. One last caper, just me and him. No Coop. No Lombardo. No Swartwood. No other friends. If I got caught—and chances were about fifty-fifty that I would, in fact, get caught—then it should be me alone. I wasn’t going to drag the others down with me.

It was Saturday night. Mary and I were due to drive home the next day. I figured I’d wait until mid-week, when the store was at its emptiest, and then I’d swap out Jesus’s ashes with the dirt from H.P. Lovecraft’s grave. That way, if someone ever did burrow through the wall to verify his remains were still there, it would look like they were.

He wasn’t just that guy. He was my best friend.

And I had a promise to keep.

To Be Continued…

Brian Keene writes novels, comic books, short fiction, and occasional journalism for money. He is the author of over forty books, including the recently released Pressure and The Complex. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.

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