My review of...
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream
Hunter S. Thompson
Vintage Books, 1998 (first published 1971)
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The monstrous lizards appear about twenty pages in, ordering drinks in a hotel bar, ankle-deep in blood and gnawing each other’s necks. That was when I flipped to the book’s back cover for a quick double-check: yup, “NONFICTION/JOURNALISM” was printed in the corner. Fair enough, I suppose; acid-induced hallucinations are real in their own way. Carry on.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is an unfathomably loopy account of Hunter S. Thompson’s drug-addled five days in Sin City. Thompson (or rather, his alias Raoul Duke) is high from the first page to the last on a cocktail of uppers, downers, psychedelics, and alcohol, a cocktail that continuously kaleidoscopes through symptoms as his body reels and sweats through each substance in turn. Duke and his companion Dr. Gonzo roar around the city terrorizing hotel maids and destroying rental cars in the throes of, variously, paranoia, ecstasy, nausea, and violent enthusiasm. There’s not much clear motivation from moment to moment. Wielding .356 Magnums and haggling for apes—that’s just what you do. At least, it is if you spent the last decade “riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave,” which is to say the drugged-up countercultures of the 1960s.
Now, though, it’s 1971, and that wave has broken and washed out. Even in the blur of pills, tabs, and huffs, Thompson has moments of startling clarity about the shifting political and social tides. He comments on the significance of Tim Leary’s ideas on consciousness expansion, the Beatles’ commitment to the Maharishi, the Hell’s Angels’ connection to student movements in Berkeley. “There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning,” but within a few years that energy was “aggressively dissipated by the rush to self-preservation.” The nation stumbled from heady idealism down into “this doomstruck era of Nixon.”
If by his own account the visions of 60s countercultures has failed, why are Duke and Gonzo subjecting themselves to a suitcase full of mind-altering substances? Because they can; because it doesn’t occur to them not to; because despite the trembling and vomiting and paranoia their cocktail induces, they have no other concept of how to exist. These are my theories, at least. They’re certainly not politically minded or socially conscious, nor do they espouse any particular philosophies about a purpose to life, not even simple pleasure. They just crash unthinkingly from one intoxicant to the next: “It made no sense at all,” Duke muses, “but I knew it was true. Drug reasoning.”
It’s inherently fascinating to read the stream of consciousness of a man who’s out of his mind on mescaline, acid, cocaine, ether, and amyls, but I found it particularly interesting having just finished astronaut Chris Hadfield’s memoir: no one could possibly be more clear-headed, goal-oriented, and hard-working than Hadfield, and the contrast is stark. There were moments I just had to laugh at the wild diversity of lives humans manage to lead, even within the smallest confines of time, space, language, and culture. Hadfield was born 22 years after Thompson, a mere 6-hour drive north via I-71 and I-75. These individuals grew up in such similar circumstances—two white men, anglophone, healthy, middle class, highly educated—and yet their adult lives couldn’t have been more different.
I suppose both Hadfield and Thompson sought a sort of transcendence: the opportunity to rise above the familiarity of Earth’s atmosphere and experience weightlessness. Hadfield, for one, focused his consciousness on studying external reality and submitting himself to its physics. That combination of cosmic respect and personal humility empowered him to take charge of his trajectory and contribute to marvelous construction projects in microgravity. He achieved great things, objectively; no one would double-check the back of his book for the stamp of NONFICTION. Meanwhile, Thompson’s impressions of his own altered consciousness are perhaps JOURNALISM, but they don’t reflect any lasting accomplishment or broader reality. In the life he depicts leading up to this episode in Las Vegas, the only transcendence he achieved was brief bouts of hallucination from which he inevitably crashed down time and time again.