Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas book review
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like ‘I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive. . . .’ And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full with what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: ‘Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?'”
As an opening paragraph, this says it all. Welcome to the frenzied, hyper neurotic, ridiculously funny world of America’s premier gonzo journalist, Hunter S. Thompson.
“Gonzo” was Thompson’s word (although someone else coined it) for his style of reporting. Throwing yourself head first into the story, becoming part of the story – even becoming the story. Tossing caution to the wind, along with any semblance of objectivity, fortified with a good supply of recreational drugs and the occasional handgun. He’d been practicing this particular type of journalism since writing an article called The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved for a now defunct magazine called Scanlan’s. But it wasn’t until Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream that he first used the word “gonzo” in print. “Free Enterprise,” he wrote. “The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism.”
Fear and Loathing began as an assignment from Sports Illustrated. What they wanted was a 250-word piece on the Mint 400, an annual off-road race being held in the Las Vegas desert. At the time, Thompson was heavily involved with Oscar “Zeta” Acosta, a Mexican-American lawyer and activist who was a source for an exposé Thompson was writing on the death of TV journalist Rubén Salazar. The two of them, Thompson and Acosta, decided the Mint 400 assignment would be an opportunity to get out of the racially charged atmosphere of Los Angeles and have a chance to talk. What originally began as a photo caption grew into a serialized feature for Rolling Stone. A few weeks later Thompson and Acosta went back to Las Vegas, this time for Rolling Stone, to cover the National District Attorneys Association’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. That trip was incorporated into the novel as Part Two.
What we have to remember about Thompson is that he was, among other things, a satirist. Fear and Loathing is not a documentary but a roman à clef, a novel about real people overlaid with a façade of fiction. It’s possible that Thompson, a.k.a. Raoul Duke, and his companion, Acosta, whom he calls Dr. Gonzo and refers to throughout as his attorney, may have ingested as much cocaine, amphetamines, ether, alcohol, mescaline, cannabis, and LSD as reported; then again, maybe they didn’t. The line between what happens and what is only imagined by the protagonists is frequently blurred, since so much of the story is driven by their drug-fuelled hallucinations.
The plot, such as it is, centres around their expedition into the heart of America – or at least that section of America’s heart known as Las Vegas. Where the tourists look like “caricatures of used car dealers from Dallas and, sweet Jesus, there were a hell of a lot of them at 4:30 on a Sunday morning, still humping the American dream, that vision of the big winner somehow emerging from the last minute pre-dawn chaos of a stale Vegas casino”.
Like America itself, Vegas is a weird mixture of hyper-conservatism and extreme oddball wackiness. When he and Dr. Gonzo attempt to check into their hotel, tripping out on acid and a variety of other stimulants, Duke is justifiably paranoid that their behaviour will attract undue attention. It doesn’t. As Thompson explains, “In a town full of bedrock crazies, nobody even notices an acid freak”.
The point of the trip is to cover the Mint 400 but, as you might expect, this never happens. Instead, the two take a truckload of drugs, wreck several hotel rooms, abuse waitresses and hotel staff and in general behave like jerks. While making some excellent points on the coarseness of mainstream America and the sheer weirdness of Vegas itself (“The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war”), Fear and Loathing ends up being a kind of adolescent prank taken to illogical extremes. It is funny, but it’s exhausting.
By the end of his life, Raoul Duke had displaced his creator. In the mind of the public Thompson was Duke and vice versa; his legendary appetite for living with one foot over the edge hampered Thompson from being a participant in the stories he created. Duke was larger than life – he couldn’t pass through a crowd unnoticed any more than Elton John could walk into your local bar and order a beer.
Then again, the parallels between Thompson and his alter ego are significant. Consider this: Before setting off for Las Vegas, Duke and his attorney stock up on drugs:
“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. . . . The only thing that really worried me was the ether”.
And here, from E. Jean Carroll’s biography, we have a picture of Thompson’s workday, which started at 3:00 in the afternoon:
“While writing he consumed: Chivas Regal, Dunhills, cocaine, orange juice, marijuana, Heineken, huge helpings of food, LSD, Chartreuse, clove cigarettes, gin and pornographic movies. He then spent some time in the hot tub with champagne and Dove Bars.”
On February 20 2005, in failing health and more than a little depressed, Hunter Thompson put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger, after leaving a note for his wife:
“No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun – for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax – This won’t hurt.”
It’s a pity he didn’t stick around a few more years. He hated Richard Nixon and wrote a vitriolic obituary for Rolling Stone when Nixon died: “I beat him like a mad dog with mange every time I got a chance, and I am proud of it. He was scum.”
What, oh what would he have said about Trump?