A couple of days ago I finished reading my first Hunter S. Thompson novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. I bought a used paperback copy for half-price while on our honeymoon in Seattle, at the BLMF Literary Saloon in Pike’s Place Market. Alas, I set this vollume aside for a couple of months, but after witnessing Sean laughing as he read through it in July, I decided it was my turn to discover what had inspired such a cult following.
Part of my interest in Thompson’s work stems from the fact that he might be the most fascinating/famous person to live in the near vicinity of my hometown of Niceville, Fla. Before he started ingesting dangerous quantities of drugs and began the revolutionary Gonzo movement in journalism (more on that later), good ol’ HST served in the U.S. Air Force at Eglin AF Base, where my dad works. By lying about his job experience, he landed a job as the sports editor of the base newspaper, The Command Courier. He also wrote an anonymous sports column for The Playground News, a local paper in Ft. Walton Beach–the neighboring hometown of one of my college roommates.
If you know anything about Thompson, it is unsurprising to learn that this guy was recommended for an early honorable discharge by his commanding officer because “although talented, [he] will not be guided by policy … sometimes his rebel and superior attitude seems to rub off on other airmen staff members.” So said Col. William S. Evans, chief of information services at Eglin. In the end, this was probably a good thing–both for the Air Force and for us lit nerds.
That’s the little known history of Hunter S. Thompson that is probably only interesting to us Okaloosa County natives. In my JOUR 102 course in college, we learned about Thompson as the father of Gonzo journalism, which was ground-breaking at the time because it defied all notions of completely objective reporting. Instead, Thompson placed himself, the reporter, into the story he was covering and wrote in the first-person. This would later inspire the New Journalism movement and such renowned narrative nonfiction writers as Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese.
I find this all to be very interesting because I read the book The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on their Craft earlier this summer (coincidentally, another Seattle purchase, from the well-known Elliot Bay Book Company). That anthology featured interviews with the likes of Jon Krakauer, who wrote the NY Times’ bestseller Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster. In essence, the journalistic grandbabies of Mr. Thompson. So I saw this as my opportunity to see where all this new-fangled journalism began.
Fear and Loathing is notably the first time Thompson uses the label “Gonzo” in his own writing to refer to his journalistic style: “But what was the story? Nobody had bothered to say. So we would have to drum it up on our own. Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism.” The term “gonzo” was coined by Boston Globe editor Bill Cardoso in 1970 when describing Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” Cardoso claimed “gonzo” was Boston Irish slang to describe the last man standing after an all-night drinking marathon. Who knows how true this story is, but it makes sense, right? Just a fun little etymology lesson for you. Thompson personally associated his style of writing with one of my favorite authors, William Faulkner, who once claimed that “fiction is often the best fact.”
Fear and Loathing actually began as a 250-word photo caption assignment for Sports Illustrated that grew into a two-part series in Rolling Stone and the contemporary classic the book is today. What’s it about, you ask? Plot-wise, it’s hard to say, because Thompson wasn’t much of one for plot. Or at least plot as the primary motivation/drive for the writing. But in short, it’s a thinly disguised, somewhat autobiographical tale about reporter Raoul Duke (Thompson) and a 250-pound Samoan, repeatedly referred to as “my attorney” (Oscar Zeta Acosta), who head to Vegas to cover the Mint 400 desert race, and later, to crash the National District Attorneys Association’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs–with, as it turns out, a suitcase stuffed with psychedelics.
As Duke explains, “Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas … with the music at top volume and at least a pint of ether.” More importantly to Duke and his attorney, they are in pursuit of “the American Dream,” that elusive concept that they naturally never quite find. Sorry to spoil that for you. But if you’ve read The Great Gatsby in high school like the rest of America, you already knew that such a dream isn’t real.
A lot of Thompson’s stream-of-conscious style of writing can be difficult for readers to make sense of, and with good reason, as he attempts to write based off recordings he made while in a hallucinogenic-induced haze:
We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.
Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.
I think to appreciate this book you have to reflect on Thompson’s underlying commentary about the culture of the U.S. in the early ’70s. Fear and Loathing is plot-less, not pointless, OK? At the time this book takes place, you’ve got the Vietnam War going on, Nixon as president, and the flower child/counter-culture movements of the ’60s are already on the decline. When the reality-skewing drugs of the past decade did not prove to be enough to right the world, they went out of style (“It is worth noting, historically, that downers came in with Nixon…”). The drug culture began to mirror the hopelessness of society. “No more of the speed that fueled the Sixties. . . a generation of permanent cripples who never understood the essential fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody. . . is tending the Light at the end of the tunnel.” As the drug culture changed, those on the fringes of society were left dwindling and confused.
Las Vegas is the perfect setting for a place to pursue the American Dream, in my opinion. You’ve got excess to the extent of tackiness and hope and despair all juxtaposed together in one city. One of my favorite quotes from the book is when Duke decides that Vegas “is not a good town for psychedelic drugs. Reality itself is too twisted.”
As Thompson threw any cohesive idea of a plot out the window, the focus is on the details. We are given vivid images of the world seen through a drug-powered delirium. Duke sees strangers as reptilian monsters, crawling in pools of blood. There’s a humorous scene when Duke tries to convince a Georgia cop to be worried about a smackhead migration to the Deep South because such druggies are attracted to warm weather. There are truly no slow points in the book, as Thompson’s rolling language carries us further and further from reality and deeper into his whacked-out mind.
There are also some fantastically phantasmagorical illustrations from Ralph Steadman, which I think really add to the story in terms of revealing the horrific side-effects of drugs that are intended to make life seem a little more enjoyable.
And sometimes the book is just laugh-out-loud funny.
There is no denying this book is worth reading because of the revolutionary nature of the writing. It’s the journalistic equivalent of a surrealist painting. Although not as serious as Thompson’s other works, it is considered by many of his devoted followers to be his magnum opus. I’m not in a position to know if I agree, but I can see why they would say so. As the NY Times’ book reviewer declared in 1972, when Fear and Loathing was first published, it is “the best book yet written on the decade of dope gone by,” but it is also much more than that. It’s a memorable, visceral literary experience.
I give it 3 out of 5 stars because it just wasn’t my favorite type of book and after 200 pages, witnessing two guys on drugs got a little predictable, but I’m definitely glad I read it so I know what all the well-justified hype is about. I would like to see the 1998 film adaptation, which stars Johnny Depp as Duke/Thompson (Depp also starred in the film adaptation of Thompson’s The Rum Diary…I sense a pattern here). But I doubt it could compare to the rollicking adventure of the book version.
I’ll conclude with one of my favorite quotes from Fear and Loathing (I love collecting quotes). This is Thompson’s reflections on being in San Francisco in the ’60s:
Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run, but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.