Apparently he was just born that way. In McKeen’s words, he was “wired different.” His elementary-school principal in Louisville, Kentucky, called him “Little Hitler,” and one schoolmate recalled that he “almost had demonic power.” When he was nine, FBI agents came to his parents’ door, accusing him of vandalizing a mailbox; he missed his high-school graduation because he was serving a jail term for ripping off somebody’s wallet. “What do you think made Hunter the way he is?” his straight-arrow older brother, a Cleveland insurance man, asked one of their boyhood friends at Thompson’s memorial. Thompson himself once speculated that “there may be some genetic imperative that caused me to get into certain situations”—or, as he put it in his Playboy interview, he was “a natural freak.”

His compulsive productivity is one indication. In addition to his published books, some twenty thousand of his letters survive. (Before the days of photocopying, he made carbons.) Those collected a decade ago in The Proud Highway add up to nearly seven hundred printed pages, which only takes us from 1955 to 1967—and Douglas Brinkley, who edited the volume, says he included only one letter out of every fifteen. Whether or not Thompson’s energy came from drugs—he once said he used only tobacco and Wild Turkey “regularly” while writing—it was scary to behold. Timothy Crouse remembers watching him at his IBM Selectric, “his elbows out to the sides, sitting up very straight, and then he would get this sort of electric jolt and start to type. He’d type a sentence and then wait again with his arms out, and he would get another jolt and type another sentence.” In a 2003 profile for Relix, Jesse Jarnow noticed that Thompson talked the same way: “He speaks in tight bursts, quickly stopping and starting, as if allowing his hands time to type. ‘I’veneverunderstood. Whatamemoir. Reallyis.’”

Certainly Thompson could function after consuming quantities of drugs that would immobilize—at best—a more chemically sensitive soul. “There are very few things that can really beat driving around the Bay Area on a good summer night—big motorcycle, head full of acid,” he told Rosenbaum in his High Times interview. Thompson’s self-mythologizing may have encouraged tall tales about his exploits. “Obviously, my drug use is exaggerated,” he said in 1990, “or I would be long since dead.” But if he ingested a tenth of all the LSD, mescaline, speed, cocaine, and cannabis (often in combination) that he himself claimed, he was, to quote 
McKeen, “a genetic miracle.” He also drank constantly, “probably enough during a twenty-four-hour span to render a minor-league infield unconscious,” McKeen writes. “He breakfasted on bloody marys and beer and drank Wild Turkey and Chivas by the tumbler, but he was rarely shit-faced.” In his Playboy interview, he claimed to have spent $1,400 on cocaine just to finish one section of one Rolling Stone story—and that was in 1974 dollars.

You’d think that these habits, combined with his fondness for shooting off guns and his Tourettic abusiveness—he once told his son Juan, then a toddler, to bring him cigarettes or he’d “rip his balls off”—would have made Thompson a pariah. In fact, he was widely and deeply, though hardly universally, beloved. His house at Woody Creek became a salon, superintended in his later years by a succession of devoted assistants and lovers—one often becoming the other. His devotees were hard to alienate: a pair of college interns whom he’d menaced with an ax came back to work for him a week later. In 1983, he traduced socialite Roxanne Pulitzer in Rolling Stone as “an incorrigible coke slut . . . . In six and a half years of marriage, she had humped almost everything she could get her hands on . . . . At thirty-one, she looks more like a jaded senior stewardess from Pan Am than an international sex symbol.” But after she lost custody of her children in a divorce trial, he apologized to her for years, and ultimately won her over: “I really grew to love him,” Pulitzer tells McKeen. Somewhere inside the bad boy, people saw the good man—just as the ferocity of his political writing ultimately failed to hide the patriot, the moralist, even the prophet. “I have stolen more quotes and thoughts and purely elegant little starbursts of writing from the Book of Revelation,” he wrote in Generation of Swine, “than anything else in the English language.”

David Gates is the author of the novels Jernigan and Preston Falls and a collection of stories, The Wonders of the Invisible World. He is a former senior editor at Newsweek, where he wrote about books and music, and his nonfiction has appeared in The New Yorker, GQ, The Oxford American, The Journal of Country Music, and many other publications.