Hunter S. Thompson – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971/1989)
For those who haven’t read this book or seen the film version (1998---directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro) the premise is pretty straight-forward: a reporter, on assignment to cover a motorcycle race in Las Vegas, takes massive amounts of drugs and terrorizes around the city with his partner, who claims to be his attorney (and in real life, Oscar Acosta WAS a lawyer and political activist.) The events described in the book are outrageous and offensive and frightening and unbelievable and hilarious---and might have even been partially true (in some respects.) Thompson was well known for his journalistic style (often called “Gonzo” journalism) in which he would paint himself as a primary character in the story he was covering, barely touch on the issue he was sent to investigate, make scathing observations about society, commit any number of atrocities, and then flee the scene. And this book is the gold standard by which this type of journalism should be judged. We never learn who won the motorcycle race---because it doesn’t matter. What Thompson eventually decides he’s actually covering is a deeper topic: What happened to the American Dream?
One of the dangers of suggesting that this book is nothing but complete, drug-soaked craziness, is the danger of discounting Thompson as a writer of little substance, and I think that would be a massive a mistake. Thompson was a brilliant observer, and keen intellect, and a relentless fighter for the rights of individuals over the horrifying forces of oppression and authoritarianism. He was also one of the best, most poetic, most intense writers of the last 100 years, and if you think I’m full of hyperbole, check these passages out, from page 68 of my copy of this book, as Thompson considers the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, which had high ideals and a sense that they were on the verge of initiating a new age of love and peace and understanding:
“There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning….
“…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.”
By 1971 when this book was written, Thompson had already realized that the idealism of the 1960s was dead, that the tide of progress was reversing and rolling away. And it kept right on rolling. And here we are now, in 2017, and we’ve almost boomeranged back to 1925 (the year the Scopes Trial decided that teaching children proper science was more important than pandering to the whims of religious fanatics who wanted their fictions taught in schools instead of reality…)
In my view, Thompson is essential reading. This book will definitely be too visceral for some, too many drugs, too many body fluids, too many anti-authoritarian acts, too many lies, but his sentiment is sincere. Thompson was a crusader, an explorer. He delved into realms (of the mind AND of society) that would be too dangerous for most of us to risk, but the wisdom he brought back from these journeys can be extremely illuminating. Beyond the “party,” beyond the felonies and fraud, beyond the laugh-out-loud terror, what this book does is show us who we are in our bones. Every ideology is challenged and every motivation that we have MUST be reexamined after reading an author like this (and Pynchon and Twain and Alan Moore.) When a concept is taken to its extreme---as with the Large Hadron Collider---it explodes, and we can then look at the debris and see for ourselves what is true and real. Thompson, who committed suicide in 2005, is greatly missed, and we could sure use his keen observations and cutting wisdom today… At the VERY least, we still have his books.
---Richard F. Yates
P.S. – Hunter S. Thompson and I were both born on July 18th. It doesn’t really mean anything, but at least I have that little bit of connection to smile about!