This article originally appeared on Lit To Lens on Dec. 29, 2016.
Title: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Author: Hunter S. Thompson
Year Of Publication: 1971
Genre: Gonzo Journalism
“Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas…with the music at top volume and at least a pint of ether.”
Life sucks and then you die, or something like that. “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man,” writes Samuel Johnson as quoted in the prefect to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by noted experimenter Hunter S. Thompson. It’s a forgettable quote that leads a work thick with witticisms, but one that defines the work better than all the rest.
Fear and Loathing is a profane and disturbing work, one which lies in the intersection of fact and fiction. Fear and Loathing tells the story of journalist Raoul Duke (a thinly veiled Thompson equivalent) and Dr. Gonzo, Duke’s lawyer. Duke comes to Vegas from Los Angeles to cover a motorcycle race, the Mint 400, for a magazine, but instead descends into a bizarre search for the American Dream and the next high.
At his core, Thompson is a counterculture warrior, though one who eschews physical violence for chemical hallucination. Though in Vegas, reality itself is even more of a trip.
“Hallucinations are bad enough. But after awhile you learn to cope with things like seeing your dead grandmother crawling up your leg with a knife in her teeth. Most acid fanciers can handle this sort of thing. But nobody can handle that other trip-the possibility that any freak with $1.98 can walk into the Circus-Circus and suddenly appear in the sky over downtown Las Vegas twelve times the size of God, howling anything that comes into his head. No, this is not a good town for psychedelic drugs. Reality itself is too twisted.”
And yet, here he is. In the city of excess. Where reality is so warped and twisted that what the hell can a blotter of acid do to your brain that Spiro Agnew hasn’t already? It’s in these passages – like the one that follows – that we can read Fear and Loathing as an escapist fantasy. A reflection of the world that doesn’t necessarily exist, and yet is not any less untrue. What we read are perceptions of Thompson’s reality, whether influenced by acid, ether, mescaline, weed, coke, alcohol, or a rainbow of pills. Mix to taste, repeat.
“…By this time the drink was beginning to cut the acid and my hallucinations were down to a tolerable level. The room service waiter had a vaguely reptilian cast to his features, but I was no longer seeing huge pterodactyls lumbering around the corridors in pools of fresh blood. The only problem now was a gigantic neon sign outside the window, blocking our view of the mountains — millions of colored balls running around a very complicated track, strange symbols & filigree, giving off a loud hum….
“Look outside,” I said.
“There’s a big … machine in the sky, … some kind of electric snake … coming straight at us.”
“Shoot it,” said my attorney.
“Not yet,” I said. “I want to study its habits.”
But as much as Fear and Loathing offers escape, it’s also a sharp critique of reality and our place in a post-60’s America – and all the bullshit, stupidity, and hypocrisy therein. Then there’s Vietnam. Even in Duke’s drug-addled trips, he’s able to keep his moment in perspective. “There’s a war on, man! People are being killed!” he yells at one point as he waits for a beer.
It’s that perspective that allows Thompson to see himself less a singular man, and more as a part of a movement. In what’s become known as the “waves speech,” Thompson strikes a chord at the heart of what he has done and is doing. There’s an unknown but perhaps greater meaning or motivation to his life – that he’s present at a time of significant change and upheaval. And though he’s not fighting to make it so, he’s certainly riding an existing wave – hallucinated or not.
“Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the 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 . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. . . .
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.
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 Los 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.”