Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 experiment in “gonzo journalism,” Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is precisely the type of multifaceted enigma-within-a-novel that I most feared (and loathed) coming into the Well-Read Man project. As you may recall from earlier posts, I failed at reading Albert Camus’ The Stranger back in college, thinking it was a quaint story about disease and quarantine when it was instead a deep philosophical work on life, religion, and existence. The deeper meaning of Thompson’s controversial work was similarly presented beneath a layer of seemingly unrelated storytelling. Fortunately, he anticipated dense people like me and included nice, neat paragraphs stating his purpose clearly.
The book tells the shocking tale of a drug-filled romp through the streets and hotel rooms of Las Vegas in search of the American Dream. The narrator, Raoul Duke, is a “doctor of journalism” and a semi-fictional stand-in for the author himself. Duke’s sidekick and attorney, Dr. Gonzo, represents Thompson’s real-world lawyer, Oscar Zeta Acosta. During their two trips to Sin City within the span of two weeks, they manage to consume “almost every type of drug known to civilized man since 1544A.D.,” destroy two convertibles and two hotel suites, skip out on thousands of dollars of purchases, and abuse “every rule Vegas lived by—burning the locals, abusing the tourists, terrifying the help.”
It’s a repulsive story, and yet the protagonist manages to pull his head out of the desert sand and the cloud of illicit pharmaceuticals long enough to wax eloquent on the condition of America in the 1960s, especially the counterculture that was still in vogue at the time. That cultural movement, as exemplified in the book by references to psychedelic drug advocate Timothy Leary, never lived up to its promise of “consciousness expansion.” Instead, says Thompson, drugs like LSD and the accompanying “turn on, tune in, drop out” attitude they engendered resulted in “grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took [Leary] too seriously.”
Seeing that the failures of the counterculture were little better than the promises of the American Dream lifted up by mainstream culture—a dream which Thompson links with the excesses and superficial consumerism of Las Vegas—Duke and Gonzo decide to cope in the only way they know how, by giving themselves over completely to the drugs, making a mockery of both the drug lifestyle and “normal” world that the mainstream culture preferred instead.
I did not enjoy Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Its glorification of the type of behavior that I wish most for my own child to repudiate is maddening. The protagonists are abhorrent at best, extreme archetypes of a cultural revolution that I, by a quirk of my birth year, was able to avoid. And yet, despite my revulsion, I can’t shake the feeling that Thompson is talking to me, reminding me that some of the cultural niceties that I accept and take for granted are just as vapid and destructive as the long litany of drug abuses presented in the book.
The Well-Read Man Project
For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.