Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
‘Fear and loathing in Las Vegas – A savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream’ originally appeared in two parts, in Rolling Stone magazine, in November 1971. The novel appeared soon afterwards and has been re-printed many times since. Written by self-styled Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, under the pseudonym Raoul Duke, the book follows the journalist’s search for the American Dream. Illustrated by Ralph Steadman.
Along with other luminaries, like Tom Wolfe, a new type of journalist arose out of the Sixties, as part of a movement unoriginally named New Journalism. Unlike conventional journalism, which sets ‘objectivity’ as its standard, New Journalism was about ‘subjectivity’; the journalist positing themselves within the article.
By involving the journalist, with their emotions, beliefs and opinions it produced a starkly literary flavour in the texts of these writers. Thompson’s own brand of New Journalism, Gonzo, typified this literary technique. It is politically and socially charged, full of an individuals excesses, as it rampantly explores the many forces of contemporary culture.
This is not to say, however, that all journalistic practice was thrown out the window. Before leaving on the first of two assignments to Las Vegas, which make up the broad framework of the book, Thompson/Duke acquires a tape recorder in order to keep an accurate record of his journey. There is recourse to accurate documentation; although the time line of the book is not necessarily in sync with actual events. For instance, the two assignments were a month apart, whilst in the book it is only “a few days”.
The book begins with Duke and his “attorney” Dr. Gonzo, tripping on LSD, driving along the highway to Las Vegas. The set of fear, paranoia and confusion is cleverly produced when they briefly pick up a hitch-hiker. The episode illustrates the breakdown in communication and understanding between individuals thrown into a situation together, whilst they’re in totally different head spaces.
After the thrownness of the initial opening, there is a flashback to Duke being given his assignment to cover the Mint 400 race in Vegas and he and Dr. Gonzo making ready their plans to journey into the “heart of the American dream.” The setting is structured around the extremes of this very emotive city, with the desert highways acting as the veins running in and out of the hub.
The journey in Las Vegas is a drug-frenzied observation on the extreme dichotomies of a post-counterculture persona being confronted with all the legal excesses of a Nixon led America. Confrontation between beliefs, journalists and their place, the individual and the established systems, morality and freedom, stretch the narrative into a field of unabashed mayhem – delivered through the lens of a drug addled journalist:
“…after a while you learn to cope with things like seeing your dead grandmother crawling up your leg with a knife between 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 down-town 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.”
Many of these confrontations play out through Duke, as he battles between his own affirmation in the search for the American Dream, with the necessities of his job. For example, when he first checks into a hotel, still in the grip of his blotter acid:
“We were forced to stand in line with all the others-which proved to be extremely difficult under the circumstances. I kept telling myself: ‘Be quiet, be calm, say nothing… Speak only when spoken to; name, rank and press affiliation, nothing else, ignore this terrible drug, pretend it’s not happening…’”
And so the story is constructed through a complex of relationships that revolve around the central character, Duke, as he faces up to the task of writing his own take on the assignment. The very act of writing, for the New Journalist, was a point of discourse itself within a text.
The central relationship in ‘Fear & Loathing’ is between Duke and Dr. Gonzo; who takes on the role of leader, guide, friend, nemesis, foil, establishment lawyer figure and counterculture victim, as he whisks the energy and movement into the space of the text. It is their interaction that drives the narrative, as a work of creative non-fiction and as a cultural exposition.
Dr. Gonzo, in a warped psychosis in their hotel room, threatens Duke: “You can turn your back on a person, but never turn your back on a drug-especially when it’s waving a razor-sharp hunting knife in your eyes.” The possession of the man by LSD is a fractal metaphor for the novel. As people were possessed by the zeitgeist of the Sixties, by the geist of consumerism or by the strictures of their working life. The psychedelics, indeed the full drug-frenzy, becomes a light through which the hypocrisy of the age is illuminated.
At the end of part 1, Duke attempts to leave Las Vegas but a number of influences unwittingly conspire to bring him back, to continue his search for the American Dream. It is as if the place itself, Las Vegas, has clawed him back having dug into him and ‘tasted blood’.
In part 2, Duke has a new assignment arranged by Dr. Gonzo, who returns with a young, psychotic girl called Lucy. The increasingly bizarre circumstances, in which they find themselves, continue to spiral through chaos. What is a record of events and what is a fictional take on non-ordinary states of reality become ever-more blurred. This is very representative of the dissipation of the organised counterculture and it permeates through the text.
The extremes of psychedelic literature during the late Sixties counterculture is most obviously illustrated through Jimson Weed (Datura.) Three years before it had been Castaneda’s book ‘Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of knowledge’ capturing the psychedelic imagination. In it, Castaneda is taught to carefully tend to his Jimson Weed, to treat it with respect and attention, over the course of years.
In ‘Fear & Loathing’: “Last Christmas somebody gave me a whole Jimson Weed-the root must have weighed two pounds; enough for a year-but I ate the whole goddamn thing in about twenty minutes.” Hedonistic excess, in drugs, in food, in behaviour, are all counter-intuitive to an organised movement.
Culturally speaking, the book has become a symbol of closure to the counterculture era. Duke’s take on the Sixties’ zeitgeist: “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.”
Accordingly, the phenomena was an inexplicable social event best measured by the remnants of its fall-out. Ultimately, the wave of “energy” which finally “broke” left empty, unfulfilled space, into which consumerism poured its geist and possessed it. The fragmented reality of psychedelics no longer illuminated a potential of peace but the insanity of a social world.
“But what is sane? Especially here in “our own country”-in this doomstruck era of Nixon. We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fuelled the sixties. Uppers are going out of style. This was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling “consciousness expansion” without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him too seriously…”
It would be difficult to pin-down a single reason for the importance of ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’. Whether it be as a contribution to journalistic method, as a work of psychedelic literature, or even as a psychological record of one of the most interesting American writers of the 20th century, the book remains an extraordinary work. One of the stand-out texts of the genre.