Friday, December 28, 2012

Tripping through Vegas with Hunter S. Thompson

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
A Savage Journey To The Heart of the American Dream
By Hunter S. Thompson,
Originally published by Random House Inc. 1972

This book has been on my must-read list for years, and now that I’ve finished it, I can say it’s been worth the wait. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a strange and curious book that belongs to an era in American culture that was summed up in Timothy Leary’s famous phrase, “turn on, tune in and drop out.”

Part memoir, part reportage and part travelogue, Fear and Loathing is Hunter S. Thompson’s (1937 - 2005) attempt to examine American attitudes towards drugs, money, success and failure in the glitzy heart of Las Vegas. To a large extent, the story is also a myth-building exercise for Thompson, who (as I understand it) regularly cast himself as a renegade in his non-fiction tales and in his life as well.

The story starts off with Thompson being sent to Las Vegas in 1971 to cover the Mint 400 car race featuring motorcycles and dune buggies. Thompson descends on Vegas in a red Chevrolet convertible, accompanied by a friend (his attorney), along with an ample stash of drugs, including marijuana, mescaline, LSD, uppers, downers, ether and tequila. The pair of miscreants stumble around town, stoned out of their minds, laying waste to hotel suites, cars, casinos, bars, credit cards and anyone unlucky enough to stand in their way. How they avoided being arrested and thrown in jail is one of the unexplained mysteries of this zany tale.

On the heels of the short-lived Mint 400 assignment, as he’s leaving Vegas, Thompson is given another assignment to stay in town to cover the National District Attorneys’ Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. The ironies of a drug-addled journalist reporting on a drug conference were as thick as the marijuana smoke that seeps from the pages of this thin book. Thompson’s encounter with the maid in his hotel room, where he pretends to be a detective, is worth the price of the book alone.

Thompson’s writing style is anything but linear. He writes in a choppy, stream of consciousness narrative, flitting from scene to scene with the attention span of a crack addict.  Wherever the action is, that’s where Thompson is, too; he inserts himself willy-nilly as a protagonist in most of the scenes, as did Tom Wolfe in many of his brilliant essays from the 1960s and ‘70s. Thompson and Wolfe were pioneers of a writing style dubbed the New Journalism, where authors adopt techniques of the novel into their reporting.

In Fear and Loathing, Thompson is capable of good, clear writing, and there are passages that jump off the page in their ability to enlighten and entertain the reader.  For all of his rambling, erratic prose, you have to hand it to Thompson: his drunken, drugged-out escapades make for some colourful prose, and his observations on cultural trends are as sharp as a tack:
You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning….And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory of the forces of Good and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…. 
My final verdict on Fear and Loathing was that it was quick, amusing and quite funny at times. Despite a narrative that often meanders, and the author’s propensity for ingesting enough drugs and alcohol that would kill other mere mortals, Fear and Loathing successfully recreates a time when America was struggling to understand drug culture and the decade that gave rise to it.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Elmore Leonard hits a bullseye with Killshot

A novel by Elmore Leonard
(1989, William Morrow and Company, Inc.)

Elmore Leonard has been writing novels since the 1950s and is widely considered to be America’s pre-eminent crime novelist. After reading only my second Leonard novel, Killshot, it’s easy to see why he is held in such high esteem.

In Killshot, we meet a hired hit man nicknamed Blackbird (aka The Bird), who is sent from Toronto to Detroit to kill an aging mobster. After the hit, things get interesting. The Bird meets up with a not-too-bright ex-con, Richie Nix, who is about to extort $10,000 from a Michigan realtor. The plan quickly goes awry, and The Bird and Richie find themselves in deadly pursuit of the man who thwarted their plans.

Leonard is an absolute master of dialogue and fast-paced action, and in Killshot, he depicts a world that is seedy, desperate and violent, a place where hit men and ex-cons move comfortably from one act of violence to another. But with Leonard, acts of violence are a means of advancing the plot and are often infused with elements of black humour. Here is Richie holding up a convenience store:
The trick now was to do both almost at once. Richie raised the shotgun high enough to aim it at the girl and saw her drop the magazine as he said, ‘This’s your big day, honey. Empty out that cash drawer for me in a paper bag and set it on the counter. And some gum. Gimme a few packs of that bubble gum, too.’
Richie is always chewing gum and blowing bubbles, a characteristic that adds a comic element to his psychopathic nature. He also spends a good deal of time jabbering away and getting under the Bird’s skin. The uneasy relationship between these two outsiders is fraught with tension, laughter, and suspense.

But it’s not just the criminals and misfits that Leonard portrays so brilliantly. The two characters drawn into this bizarre plot, Wayne and Carmen Colson, are a middle-aged married couple on the straight and narrow, who work hard and love each other, but who are drawn into a deadly cat and mouse game against their will.  Wayne and Carmen are forced into survival mode to elude their trackers, and as the story unfolds, the chemistry between them is just as full of subtlety and nuance as the chemistry between the Bird and Richie.

The pacing of Killshot is quick and frenetic. Leonard is great at building suspense through non-stop action and concise dialogue. For anyone who has not read Elmore Leonard, Killshot is a great place to start. This novel demonstrates the author’s skill at developing believable characters and throwing them into circumstances that are beyond their control, with tragic-comic results.

It’s definitely worth a read.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Lincoln: A Man Who Belongs To The Ages

Team of RivalsThe Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
 by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2006, Simon and Shuster Paperbacks)

In Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin presents a complete portrait of one of the most enduring and captivating figures in American political life, a politician who played a hugely significant role in shaping American history and its way of life for generations.

Goodwin does a marvelous job developing the story of Lincoln’s life and circumstances, starting from his impoverished upbringing in rural Kentucky to his career as a circuit lawyer in Illinois to his eventual election to public office and the Presidency. But it’s Lincoln’s term as President that provides the most compelling aspects of this book, a period when competing political factions were at work leading up to, and during, the Civil War.

In these pages, Lincoln is presented as a compassionate, rational, well-spoken and eminently likable man, a political aspirant who appears awkward and fumbling at times, but whose deep humanity and purity of heart eventually win over skeptics and opponents. He’s a man who holds the highest hopes for himself and his fledgling nation and never loses faith when the going gets rough. As the title suggests, this book also explores the lives of Lincoln’s contemporaries, including his chief political rivals and adversaries, some of whom would go on to become members of his Cabinet and close confidants.

Goodwin demonstrates historical writing at its best, meaning at its most accessible. The tone of this book is formal, straightforward and measured. She draws upon vast resources of personal letters, diaries, correspondence, newspapers reports and government archives to give an almost play-by-play account of Lincoln and the people close to him during this turbulent and divisive period in American life, when slavery and secession threatened to tear the Union apart.

All of the key moments in Lincoln’s life (his election to the Illinois General Assembly, his winning the Presidency, his marriage to Mary Todd, the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, The Gettysburg Cemetery Address) are rendered with a sharp and unbiased eye; these important moments are made all the more riveting with Goodwin’s talent at weaving multiple narratives into the mix.   

Throughout Team of Rivals, I was fascinated by the sheer volume of correspondence among politicians, soldiers, generals, civil leaders and socialites. Everybody was writing letters and keeping diaries and angling to be heard. I was also intrigued by various modes and speed of communication in the mid 19th century. For instance, during Lincoln’s inaugural Presidential address in 1860, it took seven days (via pony express) for a transcript of the address to reach the west coast so that newspapers in California could report on it. To demonstrate how starved people were for information back then, Lincoln would spend countless hours in the Washington telegraph office, anxiously awaiting the latest news from the battlefields.

A final thought about Team of Rivals is how effective Goodwin is at fleshing out Lincoln the man. Abraham Lincoln was a man who loved his family and friends; and who loved his work and his country. He was a man who aspired to the highest principles of human conduct, both in and out of office. At the conclusion of this book, I was reminded of a quote by Aristotle: "Do not listen to those who exhort you to keep to modest human thoughts.  No.  Live, instead, according to the highest thing in you. For small though it may be in power and worth, it is high above the rest."

Lincoln did live modestly and unpretentiously, but his thoughts, ideas and dreams were of a higher order than most. In Team of Rivals, those hopes and dreams – and the man’s great legacy – remain firmly intact and will continue to inspire.