Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Hunter S. Thompson's 1971 magnum opus
To me, this is the kind of book one can read over and over again without getting tired of it. It has only adopted greater depth and relevance over time, and every rereading seems to evidence this. For better or for worse, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the work that garnered Hunter S. Thompson, one of the most talented American writer-cum-journalists of recent memory, fame in the wider literary community. Still, Thompson, as with many other significant artists in history, was notorious for living to excess, and this fact often emerges through the boldly surrealistic style of Fear and Loathing.
I can still remember the first time I opened my copy of the book and becoming intensely engaged with protagonist Raoul Duke's opening line: 'We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold' (Thompson, 1993, p. 3). There's a raw sense of purpose here that many writers, past, present and emerging, sorely lack. One can sense that each individual word and phrase of Thompson's, each little compact description of something, from Duke's sombre reflections on the 1960s hippie culture to his observations on the dangerous drug-induced behaviour of his lawyer Dr. Gonzo, was carefully integrated into the subject matter.
If anything, this is the mark of a genuinely strong writer: my deep engagement with every bizarre scene and situation in the book, with a certain fantastic image or feeling or mood that seems to have leapt from Thompson's head, helps to justify such a label. I can also remember laughing a lot at what I went on to read, given the wild black humour that fills every chapter. And yet I feel one shouldn't forget the stark realities that exist beneath the story of Fear and Loathing. Thompson did live a hectic life; he did regularly drink and take drugs; and he did, no matter whether one can imagine it or not, take two separate journeys with his friend Oscar Zeta Acosta to Las Vegas in 1971, the year the book's set in. But this realism I'm speaking of, in spite of the various embellishments Thompson made with what actually happened on those journeys, makes the basic narrative and characters, as hard as these are to tolerate at times, all the more engaging.
Because that's the key word here: engagement. I keep repeating it because Thompson wields, at least in my view, a highly engaging and therefore original style of prose. This same idea of engagement, the kind of engagement that jolts you out of your seat, suddenly transforming everything into something frightening and unusual, is what pervades every single moment of Fear and Loathing. But this engagement of the reader can't be solely attributed to Thompson's descriptions of heavy drug use. Thompson, ultimately, is concerned with politics in Fear and Loathing, both of the old liberal kind embedded in a past decade and the new conservative kind of the Nixon years to come. Duke and Dr. Gonzo, though addicted to drugs and unable to prevent themselves from further obsessing over what the '60s counterculture represented, identify themselves as lost figures from a generation which thought it was going to change the world.
Duke says here: 'All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit. But their loss and failure is ours, too. What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped create...a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture...' (Thompson, 1993, p. 178-79). Such precisely chosen words of Thompson's ensure that the literary and cultural value of Fear and Loathing, its subversive language and atmosphere of mad desperation itself, remains strong, since they were born from an eccentric soul who restlessly tried to remind us of the dangers of forgetting, of taking for granted what took place in the past.
Thompson, H S 1993, 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream', Flamingo, p. 3, pp. 178-79.