By Hunter S Thompson
Reviewed by Alan Green
“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” is a road trip with a difference. It’s a wild ride though the wreckage of the hopes and ideals of the peace and love generation. It’s a quest to find the dark heart of the American Dream. Where else would you look for it but amongst the harsh neon lights of Las Vegas and out on the desert highways? More importantly would you want to look for it sober?
Hunter S. Thompson is hired to write an article about the Mint 400 desert race. Naturally he decides that the best way to do that is to hire a really fast car fill the trunk with enough drugs to kill a herd of elephants and then drive out to Vegas. Hunter is accompanied by his attorney, the Somoan. The two of them find that Las Vegas is a crazy enough place without throwing a cocktail of mind-altering substances into the mix. Vegas is “not a good town for psychedelic drugs, reality itself is too twisted.”
The year is 1971 and the drugs culture has matured from all that peace, love and consciousness-expansion hippie stuff and moved onto the serious business of getting out of your mind as fast as possible. The hippie dream is dead and the old order personified by Nixon is on the march again.
The combination of booze, every illegal drug known to man and the sleazy weirdness of Las Vegas pushes Hunter and the Somoan over the edge. They were hallucinating giant bats before they got there so to be fair they didn’t need a very big push.
Once they actually reach the bright lights of Vegas they progress from giant bats to blood crazed lizards and “two women f***king a polar bear”. Hunter describes one of the casinos as being “what the whole hep world would be doing on a Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war.” Vegas is not a good place to be if your mind is already unstable. If monstrous hallucinations aren’t bad enough they also have to deal with the cops, irate hotel managers and a psychotic runaway schoolgirl.
The sensible thing would be to get out of town but they have a job to do. Hunter makes a vague stab at covering the Mint 400 race but it turns into an unearned Vietnam flashback and in the end neither of them even know who won but that’s not the point. The real story is the search for the American Dream. Undaunted they decide to seek it out in the very belly of the beast. Hunter ends up reporting on the District Attorneys National Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, a convention of good ole boy cops from the conservative heartlands. Covering that is obviously the perfect job for two drug crazed maniacs who are wanted for wrecking cars and hotel rooms, running out on their vast room service bills and potentially kidnapping.
This book is awash with dark comedy. The drugs conference is a biting satire on the ignorance of the forces of law and order. Las Vegas gets a similar whipping for its sleazy, garish corruption but most of the comedy comes from our two heroes. There is something truly heroic but also comical about the way they keep soldiering on in the face of their own disintegrating minds and the negative attitude of various petty authority figures. Despite all that they never lose sight of the story. Well not very often anyway.
This is the book that launched Gonzo journalism onto an unsuspecting world. Hunter had been slowly developing the style in some of his earlier works but “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” brought it all together. Gonzo journalism is a style of reporting which recognizes no limits. Anything is justifiable in order to get the story. The lines between fiction and fact are blurred in the interests of getting to a deeper truth.
Another important feature of the style is that the reporter accepts that he is part of the story. A personal perspective replaces what Hunter S Thompson saw as the “bogus objectivity” of orthodox journalism. That gives reporters the freedom to influence what’s going on. They can do crazy and extreme things in order to see how people respond or they can go deep undercover.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a fictionalization of a real trip to Las Vegas. Hunter really was hired to cover the Mint 400 race. He was asked to send in an article of about 1500 words. He sent them a book of about 15 000 words. The magazine [that according to the book was] “Sports Illustrated” wasn’t happy. Apart from being far too long it also seemed to be garbled nonsense. Instead of the story about the race that they had commissioned Hunter gave them a strange road trip and a twisted meditation on the failure of the American dream and the 60’s counter culture. That strange manuscript gradually evolved into this book. Some insightful person at the rival magazine “Rolling Stone” decided that there were hints of genius in Hunter’s ravings. They published them and commissioned him to go back to Vegas and cover the National District Attorneys’ Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.
In the real world the Somoan was a fellow writer called Oscar “Zeta” Acosta. Since he tried to take legal action in order to stop this book being published I think it’s best to assume that he isn’t much like his alter ego. If only to cover ourselves legally.
Hunter was a bit vague about whether or not he really took drugs on the trip. He alternated between telling people that the whole thing was written during a four day binge and claiming that that part of the story was purely or at least mostly fictional. I would guess that the truth (in the mundane sense of the word) is somewhere in between. It should be pointed out that most other works of Gonzo journalism stick closer to the facts. “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” was something of a prototype.
“Fear and Loathing” is a cult classic. It’s an old school American road trip with all new added giant bats and blood-crazed lizards. It’s the hippie generation giving two fingers to a future that’s disappointed them and pi**ing on the cold ashes of their revolution. It’s a dark descent into madness and a bitter eulogy for dead dreams but it’s also laugh out loud funny and a wild ride that will take you to places that you never knew you wanted to go.