Plants - Drugs Mind - Spirit Freedom - Law Arts - Culture Library  
Full Review
book cover
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream
by Hunter S. Thompson
Random House 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Lux, 10/17/2007

Hunter S. Thompson’s magnum opus records a semi-fictionalized drug-fueled torpedo ride through the incandescent heart of Las Vegas in search of the American Dream. Ablaze with mescaline, LSD, cannabis, ether – hell, you name it – Thompson’s literary alter-ego Raoul Duke wanders under the bright lights of the strip with his attorney Dr. Gonzo. His associate is based on Thompson’s real-life friend Oscar Acosta, a criminal attorney associated with the Brown Power movement of Los Angeles in the 1960s and ‘70s. Acosta recorded his own account of those turbulent times in his Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo.

Duke’s infamous Vegas trip was funded by a freelance assignment to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle and dune buggy race. Thompson did in fact receive such an assignment from Sports Illustrated in 1971, but the freakish article he submitted came in at ten times the requested length and it never saw the light of day. The assignment gave Thompson and Acosta the excuse they needed to to get out of town for a few days. Both were heavily involved in an investigation of the murder of a journalist by a police officer when it came along, and they welcomed a chance to flee California.

The ensuing trip took on a life of its own, representing “a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country – but only for those with true grit.” Thompson describes his atavistic pilgrimage with electric prose, animated by dazzling, razor-sharp observations and criticisms. Duke is never at a loss for words, even in situations that would make the most seasoned psychedelic rangers quail. Few could sit quietly with a head full of mescaline in the back of a DA’s conference on illegal narcotics, for example – much less lampoon the scene around him with spot-on satire of the square world.

It is worth noting that many novices have been burned trying to live up to the Thompson legend. His self-described capacity to handle prodigious amounts of hallucinogens while driving or negotiating with police is highly unusual, to put it mildly. Most people would be reduced to quivering puddles doing the things described in this book – if they were lucky enough not to kill someone first.

As with all great satirists, a deeply-felt humanism lies just beneath Thompson’s lacerating wit. The book’s most moving passages evoke the beauty and tragedy of the idealistic ‘60s. He eulogizes the best of those times with this reflection: “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.”

But those times were over by 1971, and Thompson regarded Fear and Loathing as a “vile epitaph for the Drug Culture of the Sixties”. It was a final rocket ride on a frenzy of cultural energy that had passed its zenith. “I think [Acosta and I] understood, all along, that we were running a hell of a risk by laying a sixties trip on Las Vegas in 1971 … and that neither one of us would pass this way again.”

In Thompson’s eyes, the wave of the ‘60s broke on the harsh reef of reality when the believers in Leary’s Utopian vision encountered the “grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait” for them. No doubt Thompson knew those grim realities first-hand when he came down from god-knows-what hallucinogen in a trashed penthouse with no money to pay the bill. But the trip really comes to an end when the exhausted Duke and Gonzo betray their own convictions. When Dr. Gonzo pulls a knife on an innocent waitress, they’ve gone too far, and the trip screeches to a halt. No longer funny.

As a writer, Thompson’s strange trip was driven by his search for the best way to tell the truth. His early novel The Rum Diary showed the strong influence of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. It is an interesting and engaging novel in its own right, but the structure required by a conventional plot was ultimately too confining for Thompson’s frenetic style. He was better suited to describing events as they unfold without a beginning, middle, or end.

Thompson’s next major effort was Hell’s Angels, in which he chronicles the rise and fall of the notorious bike gang. In this book he tries to solve the plot problem by writing in a journalistic style strongly influenced by Tom Wolfe and so-called “New Journalism”, in which the reporter becomes part of the story. This form allows him to tell a story based on his experience that does not require a conventional arc.

Fear and Loathing was written in a style Thompson called “Gonzo Journalism”, which puts a picaresque spin on New Journalism. Thompson described Gonzo journalism as “a style of ‘reporting’ based on William Faulkner’s idea that the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism – and that the best journalists have always known this.” This style is perfectly suited to convey the experience of drug-dazzled wanderers who themselves cannot be certain what is real. And the book’s factual ambiguity serves practical concerns as well. As Thompson put it, “Only a goddamn lunatic would write a thing like this and then claim it was true.”

Thompson wrestled with Gonzo journalism as a form for many years, never to his own satisfaction. This book is clearly his strongest effort. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a unique contribution to the evolution of American literature and popular writing in the twentieth century, and a damned entertaining one. And if Thompson never quite arrives at a destination, well, the trip was a lot of fun.

The Thompson quotes about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Gonzo Journalism are taken from his indispensable essay “Jacket Copy for Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas”, in The Great Shark Hunt [Thompson HS. The Great Shark Hunt; Strange Tales from a Strange Time. Fawcett Popular Library. 1979.]

Fatal error: Uncaught TypeError: count(): Argument #1 ($value) must be of type Countable|array, null given in /www/library/review/review.php:699 Stack trace: #0 {main} thrown in /www/library/review/review.php on line 699