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fear and loathing

 

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.

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The book is illustrated by British cartoonist Ralph Steadman, often depicting the protagonists (and their surroundings) as monstrous and grotesque. ‘The plastic torn away…’

“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.

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For whatever reason The Great Gatsby had never really appealed to me, both the book and the recent-ish big-budget adaptation by Baz Luhrmann. But with my determination to read through all the classics and sample the great authors (and that list growing ever and ever longer…) I finally tackled it last week. The Great Gatsby is considered by many as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s best work despite suffering from average reviews and poor sales upon its publication in 1925. A rather sad fact; Fitzgerald died in 1945 under the impression that he and his failed works were to be forgotten.

The Roaring Twenties. The Jazz Age. Whatever you want to call them, it is this period of time where the events of the book take place, and they were brought to an end when the Great Depression hit after a stock market crash in 1929. Fitzgerald’s book, published in 1925, several years before the crash, is eerily prophetic as he peers through the charades of wild and reckless parties and general decadence to see the stark truths, built up on vanity and wealth. By the end of The Great Gatsby, we are left in no doubt what Fitzgerald’s general opinion was of this era. The book is a cautionary tale; the unfairness of inequality, power and wealth, of living to excess, the inability to let go of the past, and the chasing of the American Dream.

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

The plot follows the book’s narrator Nick Carraway, as he moves from Midwest America to the east, to take a job in New York, to Long Island and the fictional town of West Egg. He lives in a small house next door to the rich and mysterious Jay Gatsby. In Nick’s first few weeks he catches up with his cousin, the flirtatious, incredibly well-off Daisy, her powerful, even richer but also a complete dickhead Tom Buchanan, and their friend, cynical but glamorous golfer Jordan Baker. We get a taste of life in the Jazz Age through a series of small parties where alcohol is drank to excess and the conversation is just awful. Power and wealth and the upper class are not exactly put in a great light here. Alcoholism, promiscuity, social prejudices, the discussion firmly kept to class and wealth. The crowd that Nick becomes involved with are not exactly the most grounded bunch.

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Eventually Nick is invited to a party of his neighbour Gatsby, whom owns a tremendous mansion next door to Nick’s much more humble abode. Having seen the bright lights of many of Gatsby’s parties from a distance Nick is is quickly enveloped into an almost surreal existence, full of swinging parties and audacious feats of wealth. Gatsby is the source of nightly parties that carry on into the early hours of the morning, yet Gatsby himself rarely takes part, leading to rumours about his past, how he came about his wealth, and his true desires. Nick attends more and more of these parties in West Egg at Gatsby’s mansion, and grows an attachment to the man. There is something about this Gatsby, as Nick writes:

He smiled understandingly-much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.

Despite being set during prohibition, there is plenty of booze, drunk driving, car crashes and debauchery. Nick is intrigued by this man, seemingly so generous in opening his home to people he knows and knows not, yet he doesn’t participate – he doesn’t drink, hell he hasn’t even used his luxurious pool in his back garden – he is observing, or waiting. But for what, or who? Well, Gatsby is in love with Daisy Buchanan, has been for the past 5 years and in fact the two once dated before Gatsby had to fight in the war. It turns out that Gatsby has been attempting to win Daisy back. His mansion is exactly opposite hers, across the bay on East Egg, with the green light shining across the water a constant reminder of the love they shared.

The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.

The Great Gatsby’s final chapter is one of the sad and unfair endings in literature. A chain of events ends in a hit-and-run. Ironically, Tom’s mistress Myrtle is unknowingly killed by his wife Daisy, but Gatsby agrees to take the blame. However, when (finally) relaxing in his pool one afternoon Myrtle’s wife George Wilson enters Gatsby’s property and shoots him before turning the gun on himself. Nick’s efforts to arrange a funeral while gauging the reactions of Gatsby’s so-called friends is troubling as we realise just how lonely this seemingly popular and successful man was.

After that I felt a certain shame for Gatsby — one gentleman to whom I telephoned implied that he had got what he deserved. However, that was my fault, for he was one of those who used to sneer most bitterly at Gatsby on the courage of Gatsby’s liquor, and I should have known better than to call him.

What Fitzgerald succeeds in is creating terribly flawed characters that demand the reader’s attention. You may (in Tom’s case, will) despise certain characters, but you will enjoy reading about them – they are all fascinating in their own way. Daisy (who of her daughter says ‘I hope she’ll be a fool — that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool’), and Tom Buchanan in particular, who Nick describes as ‘one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterwards savours of anti-climax‘ and is prone to racist rants, come across as shallow, self-centred, careless individuals. Nick’s views on Tom after an encounter several months after the death of Gatsby:

I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

Was Gatsby great? It’s a difficult question. When compared to the rest of the supporting cast, he certainly comes across as a likeable character, and perhaps with narrator Nick Carraway’s encouragement, we the reader would be inclined to say yes.

They’re a rotten crowd’, I shouted across the lawn. ‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.

From the start the strange rumours of Gatsby as this almost mystical presence are exaggerated. He resembles a magician, the ‘Great Gatsby’, and even his vehicle at one point is described as a ‘circus wagon’. But how great was Gatsby, really? As Tom refers to him, ‘Mr. Nobody from Nowhere’, Gatsby came from humble beginnings and of low-birth, which doesn’t really work out well for you in this book. He is a self made man, literally making his own name, changing it from Gatz to Gatsby. What he does demonstrate is incredible ambition to make something of himself – sure, it was through bootlegging and other illegal activities, but coming from nothing to throwing the best parties in New York is pretty impressive. Gatsby got to where he was through hard work, desire, ambition and ‘an. extraordinary gift for hope’.

Leonardo Di Caprio and Carey Mulligan as Gatsby and Daisy in Luhrman's 2013 adaptation.

Leonardo Di Caprio and Carey Mulligan as Gatsby and Daisy in Luhrman’s 2013 adaptation.

But ultimately Gatsby’s doomed romanticisation of Daisy was hugely flawed. His inability to move on, to try and recreate the past exactly, was naive and foolish.

“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.”

“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”

He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.

“I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,” he said, nodding determinedly. “She’ll see.”

The tragedy is not Gatsby’s dedication in chasing a dream, but chasing an morally ambiguous, dishonest dream. And he shows tremendous greed too. He is not content with Daisy loving him – he wants her to have never loved Tom. To have never loved Tom the five years they were apart, as if he can erase the past. And this is his downfall.

There is plenty of symbolism within The Great Gatsby. The infatuation with money is everywhere, and there is evidence that Gatsby, when they dated all those years ago, loved Daisy’s money more than Daisy herself. He reminisces about her mansion in particular, and when he reconnects with her finally he insightfully shares with Nick that ‘her voice is full of money’:

“She’s got an indiscreet voice,” I remarked. “It’s full of-“

I hesitated.

“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.

That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money-that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it.

And ultimately wealth is the ultimate power of this age. Wealth consumes the rich, and destroys the poor. Everyone is striving for wealth in the book, but in The Great Gatsby, they bring immorality and death.

While reading The Great Gatsby I enjoyed Fitzgerald’s writing and the vivid and complex characters. But it was only once I had reached the end of the book and had it clouding my thoughts for days after that I realised how much the book has affected me. It’s a tragic tale of the hollowness of the American Dream that still resonates today.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.