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.




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