My first interaction with anything Hunter S. Thompson related came in my late teens in the form of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the “classic” Johnny Depp cinematic effort. I’d heard from a number of different people about the quality of the movie and the quality of Depp’s performance.
I can’t remember if I rented the movie from Blockbuster (was that still a thing?) or if I was locked into the crippling movie pirating addiction that I continue to suffer, but either way it was a short lived experience. I recall thinking to myself how ridiculously-all-over-the-place the movie was. I didn’t care for the acting. I didn’t care for the cinematography. I didn’t care for much of anything and turned the movie off before the completion of the Circus-Circus Merry-Go-Round scene. And that was the end of it for me.
Some 15 years later, I fell into a discussion with Rick Yates about quality this and that, as we sometimes do, and Fear and Loathing came up as a literary effort. Rick and I have, in the past, ran pretty closely to one another regarding the quality of cinema and literature, but he was baffled when I told him F&L was one of my least favorite movies of all time.
So, because of my respect for Rick’s opinion of literature, I decided to give Fear and Loathing a shot as a novel, rather than a movie, producing a rather different outcome. I sat down and read it in about 5 hours spread out over two days (thinly veiled brag). At only 200ish pages, I was willing to give it a power-read and get a quick impression.
First, I told myself I wasn’t going to view this book as a political statement. Thompson spends a good amount of the book’s commentary on his ideals of righteousness and how the world has moved on from the world he may still want to live (being the 1960’s and the time when ‘uppers’ were still in instead of ‘downers’ brought on by Nixon). And he is a master of this viewpoint. But I wanted to view the book from strictly a literary standpoint. Because I’d had such a visceral reaction to the material so many years ago, I wanted to just ask myself when I’d finished, did I enjoy this book?
30 or 40 pages into the novel, I could already tell that I wasn’t going to have the same experience I’d had a decade before. The writing was well structured. I don’t know if that was because I’m 15 years older than I was or because I’d just finished the classically unstructured and confusing Neuromancer. But either way, I was pleasantly surprised.
Thompson was much easier to follow and his characters were gripping and showed surprising depth. Despite the fact that he jumped in and out of different narratives, it was rather easy to follow, which is something I’ve come to value in literature as I age. I was continually baffled at how much of the story was actually true. Some of the work-arounds they use to get out of situations are so incredibly clever (such as the scene near the end with Alice the maid or the disposal of the teenage artist, Lucy), that my knee-jerk reaction is claims of falsehood.
Once I looked back and got over this outrage, I realized it didn’t matter. Either it was a true retelling of just an outrageous series of interactions, or a brilliant piece of fictional journalism. Either way, bravo, I thought. His ability to put me in that area of unknowing, I realized, is the backbone of Gonzo Journalism. How much is real? How much is made up? I found myself caring less what was non-fiction or fiction the more I read. I was simply enjoying the story.
My favorite parts of the book dealt with how casual Thompson was with such serious situations interspersed with almost unimportant details to wash out the brutalness of the stories. Raul Duke and his Attorney sit at a restaurant where Thompson writes:
“We wound up at a place called The Big Flip about halfway downtown. I had a ‘New York Steak’ for $1.88. My attorney ordered the ‘Coyote Bush Basket’ for $2.09 . . . and after that we drank off a pot of watery ‘Golden West’ coffee and watched four boozed-up cowboy types dick a faggot half to death between the pinball machines.”
I mean, just brutal, but so casually stated, between how much his steak was and their conversation as they shuffled back to the car.
This is what I left Fear and Loathing with, the feeling that little details were as important as the big details. Everything had to be carefully deconstructed by the reader to get the full effect from this novel, which I feel, especially comparative to my experience with the film 10 years earlier, I have. I, surprisingly, and I’m sure to Rick’s delight, loved the book.