Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
By: Julian on June 24, 2008  |  Comments ()  |  Share 
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Author: Hunter S. Thompson
Publisher: Harper Collins, London
Year: 1971
Pages: 204

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.

First of all, let me say this: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is my favourite book of all time. The iconoclastic work of a man who was very rarely sober for the duration of the novel, Fear and Loathing has proven to be one of the most iconic literary works of the 20th century. Echoing the magnum opuses of Kerouac and Burroughs despite being a decade too late to be rolling with the Beatniks, Hunter S Thompson scribed one of the greatest works of pseudo-journalism and quasi-anarchy ever.

Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?

A plot? Bah, who needs it! Let's get twisted! In brief, though: Raoul Duke (Thompson), a journalist on assignment by Rolling Stone magazine to cover a motorcycle race, sets off on a decadent road trip to Vegas with his lawyer Dr Gonzo (Oscar Zeta Acosta), the '250 pound Chicano'. Mind-altering substances lubricate the stresses of such a gruelling quest – a carload full of the stuff, from coke to heroin, mescaline to ether, untold tabs of LSD to a quart of tequila. Armed with a .357 Magnum, Duke and Gonzo are prepared to find the metaphysical 'American Dream', wherever such a venture may lead them.

Jesus! Did I say that? Or just think it? Was I talking? Did they hear me?

Fear and Loathing is the product of two separate odysseys to Las Vegas made by Thompson and Acosta – one to cover the Mint 500 bike race, and the second to crash the National District Attorneys Association's Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (with, as the story goes, a suitcase full of psychedelics). Thompson's articles ran in Rolling Stone magazine and were published in two parts beginning in November 1971. It's interesting to note that the duo's first trip to Vegas was a by-product of another article Thompson was scribing for the Stone titled Strange Rumblings in Aztlan, an investigative piece on the Los Angeles police shooting of a Chicano reporter at a peaceful protest. Acosta was a key source in Thompson's report and, eager to escape the tensions of LA, they decided to chat about the story elsewhere.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas often plays out with the reckless glee of a boy with a big toy – in Thompson's case, these toys were babes (read: jailbait, in one of the novel's more hilarious scenes), booze and barbiturates. It's hard to tell how autobiographical the book is and when Hunter starts getting high off adrenochrome, you can be sure that the tale's being embellished a tad – Thompson himself said that his drug use was exaggerated, saying 'if it were all true, I'd be dead'. Jann S Wenner, editor of the Stone, described Thompson as 'a man of energy, physical presence, utter charm, genius talent and genius humour', and he's not wrong. Fear and Loathing embodies everything about Thompson that made him the patron saint of antiauthoritarianism.

Mace! You want this?

Hunter Thompson is perhaps most renowned for redefining the craft of journalism with his unique style known as 'gonzo'. Gonzo is best defined as pseudo-journalism, roman à clef; Thompson's own interpretation of William Faulkner's assertion that 'the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism — and the best journalists have always known this.' Pivotal in the evolution of gonzo was Thompson's 1970 article The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, the first of such essays, and also the first collaboration between Hunter and Ralph Steadman, the British cartoonist who illustrated Fear and Loathing. Steadman later wrote, 'all the drawings just spewed out. I sent in the package to Rolling Stone, and as Hunter told me in a letter, "They flipped, man."' His surreal cartoons became trademark for the trippy drug aesthetic Thompson's writing portrayed, and his exceptional caricatures have been the source of inspiration for countless peers.

As a literary work, Fear and Loathing is exceptionally well written. Thompson was a gifted journalist, having written the (far more serious) exposé Hells Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs in 1966, and following Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, Thompson's own unique piece on the McGovern-Nixon presidential race. Thompson's relentless rat-tat-tat style is at once compulsively readable, the gonzo fusion of fact and fiction turning the novel into a relentless, über-decadent rollercoaster.

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Hunter S Thompson wrote an epochal classic with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the ultimate confirmation that the 'American Dream' is a pipe dream. In amongst all of the liquor, the drugs and the madness, Thompson's anagnorisis in the concluding chapters is sobering to see unfold. But, as Hunter would say, hot damn – getting to that epiphany made a helluva yarn. Absolutely essential reading.
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