Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream was written by Hunter S. Thompson, originally for Rolling Stone magazine in 1971, but was published as a book in ‘72. The novel was received a somewhat mild reception upon release but has since achieved cult status, for two main reasons; Thompson’s ‘gonzo’ style of writing, and the commentary of the extravagant but ultimately doomed, drug culture of the 60s. One of my favourite authors, Cormac McCarthy, was a big fan of the book, recognising it as one of the great, modern novels and a classic of our time.
The story is narrated by journalist Raoul Duke, and his attorney, the heavyset Samoan Dr. Gonzo (The plot is loosely based on real trips taken by Hunter S. Thompson and his attorney and friend Oscar Zeta Acosta; as such, we can safely assume that Thompson is Raoul Duke and Acosta is the Samoan attorney) as they travel to Las Vegas for Duke to report on the Mint 400 motorcycle race. In the trunk of their car sits a stash of illegal substances, including but not limited to: cocaine, mescaline, LSD, ether, marijuana. And a lot of rum too.
As a member of the press Duke and his attorney are able to stumble with relative ease, via hotel bars and motel rooms, from the desert heat of the Mint 400 to a police conference for the war on drugs (the audacity of attending is not lost on Duke), but due to the volume and variety of drugs they ingest, are often in some mental distress. Vomiting, damage to property, confrontations and distorted, twisted visions of their environments are present and described with vivid and hilarious detail.
But our trip was different. It was a classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in the national character. It was a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country-but only for those with true grit. And we were chock full of that.
They drive from place to place in a hallucinatory, surreal haze and the pair represent a counter-culture from the commercialism and consumerism that is rife in America. Las Vegas centralises this mainstream American culture, and the duo try their damnedest to stretch and scratch at the glossed and shiny facade of American insincerity, their private and internal commentary both twisted and painfully honest.
“The wave” has become known as a speech synonymous with Thompson’s work. The book had served largely as a wacky and hilarious, over-the-top road trip for me, but when I read ‘the wave’ I found it both beautiful and tragic. The shared feeling of achievement and hope for the future, the depression and sadness to find it quashed before it could begin.
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 (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change)… 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: No doubt at all about that…
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Lost Altos or La Honda.… 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.
Fear and Loathing also introduced the literary world to gonzo journalism and was popularised by Hunter S. Thompson himself. From what I’ve read, the gonzo style is generally narrated in the first person, the narrator often a journalist or similar, and is filled with observations, experiences and emotions (rather than facts) and usually incorporates humour, sarcasm and profanity. Throughout the book potentially serious events are interspersed with humour and it can be tough to identify between the fact and the fiction.
An over-the-top, outrageous book. The absurd insanity will disgust and entertain but there is a surprisingly touching and profound commentary of a generation of broken (American) dreams and the hippy zeitgeist of the 60s.