WE'RE IN DR. HUNTER S. Thompson's New York hotel suite when the coughing starts to take hold. A terrible pipe- induced death rattle. It turns his bald head blood-red and doesn't go away until the no- toriously hard-living ""doctor'' of gonzo journalism swigs a mouthful of Chivas Regal, gargles with it, then lets out a ear-splitting screech to clear his throat. ""HAAIIIEEEE!!'' Let the interview begin.
At 11:30 p.m., HST is just starting to recover from the previous night's festivities, a tony booze-up celebrating the 25th anniversary of his revo- lutionary book, ""Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.'' (Opening line: ""We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.'') Originally published in Rolling Stone, this hallucinogenic postcard from the edge has just been reissued in a Modern Library edition, alongside ""Moby-Dick'' and Proust. An audio adaptation is out this week. And next spring Villard will roll out volume one of Thompson's letters. ""When I was 19 I was already talking about selling my letters,'' he barks in his staccato mumble. ""Calling them the Nest Egg.''
The imprimatur of literary eminence means Thompson, 59, is officially respected--if not quite respectable. Upon arriving in New York last week, he unloaded a fire extinguisher on Rolling Stone Editor in Chief Jann Wenner. During the party, held at the stuffy Lotos Club, he kept attacking people with a noisemaking plastic hammer. He grabbed his old friend Tom Wolfe, still recovering from triple-bypass heart surgery, in a chokehold. ""One of the few writers who comes as advertised,'' Wolfe said after the assault. Among the old lions of New Journalism (George Plimpton et al.), a couple of junior Hollywood hangers-on paid homage. Johnny Depp, with Kate Moss. Matt Dillon. Mick Jagger came late, after Thompson had already fled to his hotel. During the hard-core afterparty in his suite he passed out in the bathtub, bringing to mind the epigraph from Dr. Johnson with which ""Fear and Loathing'' begins: ""He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.''
Induction into the canon may have lessened the pain a little. In his current benevolent mode --the wise old hipster in his crimson collarless shirt and silver Mexican medallion--he is immensely gracious and likable. A videographer in the entourage records everything for the archive. Is Thompson troubled by the irony of honoring his counterculture bible at a club that turned away one guest for not wearing a tie? ""It's not really that surprising,'' he mutters. ""I began my writing career at the Athenaeum Literary Association,'' a highbrow circle the young Louisville littErateur (whose mother was a librarian) was invited to join as a teenager. In those days he used to type pages from Hemingway and Faulkner to absorb their rhythms and style. He soon developed his own.
""Fear and Loathing'' took the first-person reportage known as New Journalism to new extremes. What started out as a 250-word caption on a motorcycle race for Sports Illustrated mutated into a fervid, mordant joy ride he called ""a vile epitaph for the Drug Culture of the Sixties.'' Thompson didn't just write in a high-octane, psychedelic style, he lived it. Gonzo: a word he didn't invent but trademarked. His persona, like Hemingway's, always preceded--and often overshadowed--his writing. (""Doonesbury'' even mass-marketed a cartoon version, ""Duke,'' which Thompson hates.) Which is why he doesn't get out much anymore. ""It's such a scene whenever I cover a story.'' Instead, he holes up alone in Woody Creek, Colo., with his guns and his satellite dish, firing off crazed --and by all accounts hilarious--faxes.
The fear seems quieter now, but the loathing still rages. Clinton is a ""gutless compromiser.'' Dole ran only to drive up his speaking fees. ""The '90s are the '80s without money.'' ""The '80s were the '70s without hope. The '70s were [a pause and chuckle] really a good time.'' He's got plans. A column for Rolling Stone. To finish ""Polo Is My Life,'' his aborted novel. The Modern Library may follow up with two more Thompson classics: ""Hell's Angels'' and ""Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72.'' There'll be more collected letters and faxes. ""I never dreamed I'd be this old--ever,'' says the career substance abuser, once described by his own doctor as a ""medical miracle.'' Happily, he still refuses to act his age.