a savage journey into the heart of the american dream:
OF ALL OUR CITIES, it's Las Vegas that holds the keys to our brutal American myth. It was the Corleone move west from New York that marked the fall of that family, the loss of respect and honor that the original Godfather allowed them in context. The family did not become vicious until it found its way to Las Vegas. And let's be honest: Elvis may have died at home in Memphis, but we're still propping his corpse on strings nightly amongst the Vegas lights.
The proverbial shotgun wedding begins in an all-night Vegas chapel and ends somewhere in Alabama with a literal shotgun and two very literal shells. The imagined rags-to-riches lucky-streak ends with simple terms from a brutally effective collection agency, and the big-payoff scam reaps three broken fingers and a shattered jaw.
Las Vegas is, after all, a city of last resorts.
And when Hunter Thompson rode off into that desert, it was a release he was seeking—from the L.A. tension of rioting and distrust and the growing realization that a cop had just blown a hole through the head of a Hispanic reporter for no reason at all. He went to Las Vegas with a trunk full of mescaline, pot, acid, cocaine, booze, and a pint of raw ether, intent on eulogizing our American Dream, on putting it to rest, finally. It was 1971, and he knew Las Vegas was where he'd find the rank old bastard.
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 of 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?"
Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off
and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning
process. "What the hell are you yelling about?" he muttered,
staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with
wraparound Spanish sunglasses. "Never mind," I said. "It's
your turn to drive." I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red
Shark toward the shoulder of the highway. No point mentioning
those bats, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon
Thompson was nominally working on a 250-word blurb on the Mint 400 motorcycle race when he and his Attorney (Chicano activist and lawyer Oscar Zeta Acosta) checked into the Mint Hotel on Sports Illustrated's tab. In Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas he gave them the names "Raoul Duke" and "Dr. Gonzo" (respectively)—to protect . . . well, I'm not sure what he was trying to protect: It was published with a picture of Thompson and Acosta on the back cover. In any case, the two characters proceed to snort, swallow, smoke, imbibe, and otherwise consume every chemical in reach, "laying a sixties trip" (says Thompson) on seventies-Las Vegas. Duke hallucinates drunken reporters as murderous lizards (a scene that was later rendered by Ralph Steadman, a frequent collaborator with Thompson, as one of the book's illustrations), stumbles through the Circus-Circus in a detached ether binge, and threatens his Attorney with mace and grapefruit and a tape recorder—
And then the weekend is over and Dr. Gonzo has gone home. Duke is left with the remains of a hotel room, a bill he could never pay, and an extremely fast car filled, inexplicably, with grapefruit and cheap souvenirs and 600 bars of neutrogena soap. He jumps the bill, leaves town . . . and almost immediately returns with a new assignment, to cover a drug convention for district attorneys. Switching hotels, switching cars—he says that old one about how it's almost crazy enough to work. His attorney returns with an underage girl whom he met on his plane and filled with LSD and stories of Barbera Streisand, an appetite for tequila, and a very large knife. They dispose of the girl and cover the convention (discussing the dangers of narcotics and The Manson Family with a D.A. from Georgia) and, as serious Journalists, round the week off by searching for the American Dream.
fear & loathing & another drugbook:
NOW QUESTION ONE IS, of course, did this all really happen? This is a very important question: we must determine whether to shelve this work next to Hell's Angels, Thompson's first non-fiction book, or The Rum Diary, his novel. Enquiring librarians want to know. The answer is that something like half of what's in Fear & Loathing really happened. Which makes it a novel if On The Road is a novel, if Post Office is a novel. The thing is, Thompson has this pesky reputation as a journalist and drug fiend, and he decided to call this writing "Gonzo Journalism," so the reality of the events in this book has been for the most part accepted.
Fear & Loathing (this Fear & Loathing—the term is Thompson's all-purpose description of his reaction to the absurd, cruel, and inescapable, and he did title various other articles and books Fear & Loathing in . . . wherever) is Thompson's seminal work. He wrote it for Rolling Stone magazine, which published it in two parts and then printed it in book form at RS's Black Arrow Press. Thompson's initial instincts were to write the story as it happened and send them in unedited. This was his idea of Gonzo Journalism, in-the-moment reporting with the writer as camera and subject and photographer all at once. But most of this book, in the end, was written after-the-fact, and (as Thompson admits in The Proud Highway) most of it was written straight. This is why he calls the book "a failed experiment in Gonzo Journalism," and this is probably also why the innumerable HST-wannabes who load up on booze and drugs and try to write Fear & Loathing in Omaha find that, even though they've replaced each occurrence of "and" with "&" and used phrases like "rotten pigs" and "savages" and "Jesus Creeping God!" at every opportunity, their words still come out in a stream of incoherent babble. That Thompson wrote about drugs very effectively says more about his ability with the language, his word-music and his sense of the story, than it does about his own debauchery.
Fear & Loathing may be a drug book, it may be a glorification of everything that had gone wrong with America since Eisenhower and McCarthy, since LBJ's Great Society. It may be one deranged reporter rubbing the nose of society into a mess he created for no good reason, not to mention under a cowardly assumed name. Or it may be the last wail of dozens of hippie ideals, a sputtering cry of "it's not fair" in the face of the society that beat them down and back and institutionalized and finally assimilated them. I think that's a great deal closer: what this book stands for, why it is important and powerful and still read, is the overwhelming sense of loss it carries. This book is in many ways a response to the presidency of Richard Nixon (basically everything Thompson has written since 1968 is a response to Nixon), and at its center, the book is a lament over coming to terms with the fact that the reactionaries, the thugs, have won.
It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—that kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run. . . .
My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings—when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder's jacket . . . booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end . . . but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
If Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo seem somehow mutants, somehow deranged and inhuman, it is only because they are responding to the brutal 1971 scene. Ralph Steadman illustrates this novel with claw strokes and blood-spatters, which is his style—and this is why he and Thompson work so well together. Thompson writes about a bloated society making itself, collectively, a caricature; Steadman is a caricature artist of the most cruel and honest sort. Together, they depict an America, in Las Vegas, that precludes humanity, that precludes any sort of honesty or beauty, and the drugs and mace and violent fantasies in this book exist because an honest man must reel from the image of that caricature, must try to hold on, knowing that he can't.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Other American Stories by Hunter S. Thompson
281 pages, Copyright © by Hunter S. Thompson
All block quotations in this writeup are Copyright © 1971 by Hunter S. Thompson.
This writeup is CST Approved.