Monday, August 10, 2020

Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas

Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson
No date stated (1980?), Popular Library

I first read Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas in the summer of 1997, after discovering this now-scarce Popular Library edition on a Half Price Books “clearance spinner rack” for a whopping twenty-five cents. This is one of those books that’s stuck with me over the years, and given my recurring interest in early issues of Rolling Stone Magazine I thought I should finally read it again. I enjoyed it nearly as much this time, with the caveat that it’s a much different experience reading Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas when you’re 45 years old – it seemed darkly hilarious when I was 23, but this time I saw the gaping problems with Thompson’s entire theme. If indeed there is a theme; I should give him the benefit of the doubt.

But the subtitle “A Savage Journey To The Heart Of The American Dream” seems to be on the level, the book apparently intended as Thompson’s indictment of the screwed-up American mentality of the post-Altamont Nixon era. Which is all well and good, but the only problem is, if you’re going to criticize something, it’s probably best not to do it via a pair of drug-blitzed psychopaths who have no grasp on reality. It’s especially a problem when every single character they meet is normal. I can’t stress this enough – the people who encounter our loony protagonists are all presented as level-headed, even the cops in the second half of the book. They’re not bigots, or racists, or whatever, they’re just normal people who happen to be in Las Vegas and who are bullied, hassled, or harrassed by our two main characters. This renders the entire stated theme moot. But again, perhaps this was Thompson’s intention. He was a “doctor of journalism,” after all.

This though has nothing to do with the entertainment value of the book, which is through the roof – the only other novel that’s ever made me laugh so much is James Robert Baker’s Boy Wonder. And there’s a sort of similarity between the two; both books feature psychotic, delusional protagonists, copious amounts of drugs, and a willingness to take things past the limit. Both novels even sort of lag a bit in the second half, before ramping back up on the insanity. I guess the main difference is that Boy Wonder doesn’t make any pretensions toward being “nonfiction,” and also it actually has female characters in it; Fear And Loathing keeps the focus pretty much squarely on the two psychopathic “heroes,” Raoul Duke and his lawyer, Dr. Gonzo.

The book was originally serialized in two installments of Rolling Stone, under the by-line “Raoul Duke.” This is the character who narrates the story, and of course it’s clearly Thompson himself; to make sure we get the in-joke, “Duke” occasionally refers to Thompson in a negative way. Thompson’s friend, lawyer Oscar Acosta, was transformed into a 300-pound Samoan named Dr. Gonzo (though usually just referred to as “my attorney”). Thompson capably brings this creature to life; whenever Dr. Gonzo leaves the text, which is more often than I remembered, things sort of lag. Duke himself is crazy, but Thompson’s set the bar too high with Gonzo; he walks a fine line throughout the text, with Duke playing the straight man to Dr. Gonzo, but it often rings hollow because we’re also to understand that Duke himself is a nutcase.

I think the first half of the book is the strongest; it features the memorable opening sequence of Duke and Gonzo riding into Vegas on “the Great Red Shark,” a huge Chevy convertible (another parallel -- Boy Wonder’s psycho protagonist also being named “Shark”) and Duke hallucinating that bats are following them. Here we get our first indication of the massive amount of drugs they’ve stashed in the Shark, not to mention already ingested; they’re so wasted they even freak out a hippie hitchhiker they briefly pick up. Through the course of the novel our heroes take acid (a rarity in ’71, we’re told), coke, speed, ether, amyl nitrate, marijuana, mescaline, adrenaline, various pills, and even the occasional beer or mixed drink. But what I always appreciate it, given all this, they still engage in talk about other drugs they’d like to take, usually leading into darkly humorous conversations about the highs that would ensue.

Duke’s come to Vegas to cover the Mint 400, a dirt bike and dune buggy race out in the desert. This entire element is incidental to the plot of the novel, and only leads to more surreal humor; when Duke tries to cover the start of the event, the dust raised up by the vehicles is so intense he can’t even see anything. So it’s back to the hotel for more drugs and insanity; here we have one of the more memorable sequences, with an LSD-soaring Gonzo naked in the tub, armed with a knife, demanding that Duke play “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane (he wants a “rising sound”) and then to throw the tape player into the tub when it reaches the climax. While the tape player’s still plugged in. Befitting something originally published in Rolling Stone, there are occasional references to the music of the day, in particular the sort-of-forgotten dope anthem “One Toke Over The Line,” by folk duo Brewer and Shipley (I also really like their earlier track “Witchi-Tai-To”).

But the thing is, neither Duke nor Gonzo are actually a part of the Woodstock nation. They’re a generation apart from the hippies, and Duke’s fondness for guns definitely puts him at odds with the whole peace and love situation. Also there are recurring swipes at John Lennon throughout the book, which I found humorous; Lennon tried to snipe back at Thompson in some material that wasn’t published until after Lennon’s death, referring to Thompson’s career as “Fear and Loathing For A Living.” Regardless, the book serves as a study of the death of the hippie dream – Manson is mentioned repeatedly, as is Altamont – and some of the best moments are the quiet ones, where Duke will reflect on San Francisco in the ‘60s, and how the dream died.

The second half of the book concerns Duke suddenly being requested to attend the narc convention in Las Vegas, an assignment for Rolling Stone. To be sure, it’s a bit too much after the increasing craziness of the first half, and the narrative stalls a bit; this material, with cops attending lectures on the dangers or drugs, doesn’t have the surreal edge of the Mint 400. And as mentioned, the cops – what very few of them we actually get to meet in the narrative – are for the most part presented as level-headed. Meanwhile Duke and Gonzo razz them relentlessly, including an arbitrary but fun bit about Satanic cults operating in California, chopping the heads off their victims in broad daylight. Otherwise the whole narcotics convention isn’t as exploited as much as it could’ve been.

More time is spent on Duke and Gonzo carousing around Vegas and getting in trouble; there’s a laugh out loud part, one of many, where they bully their way into a song and dance show at one of the casinos and immediately lose their cool. The narrative gets a bit jumbled here as suddenly Duke is looking for “the American Dream,” which entails driving way outside of Vegas and getting into a long conversation with a waitress and a cook – relayed in a chapter that’s all dialog, and featuring the goofy payoff that the waitress and cook immediately think of a notorious local drug-using spot when Duke and Gonzo start asking where the American Dream is. Even though that’s not what the place was ever called…and also even though it turns out the place burned down.

I’ve skipped my usual belabored rundown because Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas isn’t a forgotten book by any means, but I guess its popularity waxes and wanes. I don’t believe Thompson ever wrote anything else like it; from here he moved on to covering Nixon for Rolling Stone, and the narratives weren’t nearly as over the top or deranged. In fact I recall reading somewhere that Thompson felt he himself “got in the way” of his own, self-made legend, that it “would’ve been better” if he’d died after Fear And Loathing was published. Of course he ended up ultimately taking his own life; at the time I recall reading some wild speculation on some site that Thompson had gotten too deep into an investigation about abducted children and how they were forced to do unspeakable things, and ended up killing himself – I recall the date of his suicide was on the same day someone was giving testimony about such things somewhere. But this is just a hazy memory from 15 years ago, so I’m sure I have a lot of my info wrong.

Originally published in issues 95 and 96 of Rolling Stone in November, 1971, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is here reprinted in full, with the original Ralph Steadman illustrations edited a bit to fit in the confines of a mass market paperback. The original Rolling Stone issues are grossly overpriced on the collectors market (as this Popular Library edition now is as well), but I have the Rolling Stone: Cover To Cover CD-ROM, which features every issue of the magazine. I’ve checked out issues 95 and 96, and boy is this novel crammed in there; we’re talking like four columns of dense print per page. It probably gave some readers permanent eye damage.

Curiously there’s no date on this edition of the book. But judging from the cover and interior – Thompson’s early ‘80s collection The Great Shark Hunt is namedropped on the cover, and an ad in the back has an expiration date of February, 1981 – it seems to have come out in 1980. An earlier Popular Library edition had a tan cover, and I think at the same time Warner Books released an edition that looked idetntical, save for a slightly different cover treatment. But all these mass market paperback editions are way overpriced now – I saw someone listing this particular edition for a couple hundred bucks on eBay!? – so there are much less expensive reprints to seek out.


Matthew said...

You know I've never read Hunter S. Thompson. Is Fear and Loathing a good starting place? I've also always been interested in his Hell's Angel book.

The character Spider Jerusalem from Warren Ellis's comic Transmetropolitan was based on Thompson. I've always had a love/hate relationship with Ellis's work though. Put it this way, he was praised for making Batman "woke" about a week before it came out he was serial harrasser of women. But he could be a good writer.

TrueAim said...

Joe, have your ever read The Dog of the South by Charles Portis? Along with Fear and Loathing, Boy Wonder, Catch-22, Catcher in the Rye, Confederacy of Dunces, and Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, The Dog of the South has always been one of those books that really stuck in my mind and never left. I found it really humorous.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments!

Matthew -- I think it's a great place to start, with the caveat that I don't think he ever wrote anything else in this style. Hell's Angels for example is very tame, almost dry at times. Some of the stories collected in The Great Shark Hunt are pretty fun, though. And that's funny to hear about Warren Ellis; isn't it interesting how so many of these woke messengers turn out to have skeletons in their closets?

TrueAim -- I haven't read that Portis, though ironically it's one of the few novels of his that I actually know, I'm not sure if I even have ever read one of his novels. I mostly know him as the guy who supposedly shepherded Confederacy of Dunces into publication (which is one I've read, I think twice now, and of course I love it -- another one that'll make you laugh out loud). Thanks for the suggestion!

halojones-fan said...

I honestly found "The Great Shark Hunt" a better introduction to HST than "Fear And Loathing", because GSH has some of the only remaining non-drug-addled journalism he did--including the story that he was working on at the time he and Oscar Zeta-Acosta took the Vegas trip that happens in FLLV!

halojones-fan said...

eh, his Batman wasn't all *that* woke. And the "serial harrassment" was entered into with those women's full knowledge and, often, enthusiastic participation; he got burned when a chick decided that he wasn't coming across with the industry "in" as quickly as she thought he ought. And Transmetropolitan (and Planetary) are still both very, very good.