Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, written by Hunter S. Thompson, is a semi-autobiographical tale about a trip he takes in 1971 to cover the Mint 400, and the mishaps that occur along the way. An early version of the novel first appeared in Rolling Stone magazine, and would become known as the standard-bearer of gonzo journalism.
The novel’s subtitle, A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, often earns it the description as a “road” novel but the journey the main character and his sidekick take goes beyond the open road. The story begins with Raoul Duke, a stand-in for Thompson, and his lawyer known only as Dr. Gonzo, leaving on a trip to cover the Mint 400. The Mint 400, also known as the Great American Desert Race, is an annual drag race that took place in Las Vegas from 1968-1977, and then again from 2008 until now. But their trip, riddled with mishaps, misunderstandings and some wild hallucinations, is about more than the Mint 400. They are on a trip to find the American Dream, the thing that we all search for and hope for but so few of us ever seem to realize. And what better place to look for it in a city like Vegas, a place where hopes and dreams are traded for gambling chips and lip service promises.
I heard of the movie long before the book, but oddly enough I’ve never gotten around to watching it. And while I liked the novel, I’m not sure it endeared me enough to the story to seek the film version out. If it’s on, I’ll watch it. If it’s not, I’ll survive.
I liked the novel, but it’s a trip. It’s hard enough to follow the rambling of a drugged-up person when they’re standing in front of you; I don’t have the patience for an unreliable narrator who is also hopped up on dope. Stylistically, I get how the nonsensical rambling keeps us inside the journalist’s point of view. I get why that leads to the random tangents and conversations with people that may or may not be be real. I understand how the drugs numb them to the things going on around them. The 70s were a time of disillusionment and angst, and people turned to drugs to escape the darkness of those days.
But it still bugs me.
Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas ended up being Thompson’s most well-known work, although he came to prominence after writing Hell’s Angels, an account of the year he spent living and traveling with the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club. This wasn’t the craziest thing that Thompson would end up doing throughout his life; but it would be one of the defining moments of his life. He was a rebel at heart; his commanding officer was quoted as saying, “Sometimes his rebel and superior attitude seems to rub off on other airmen staff members.” He blasted the hippies of his day for their lack of political dedication and their descent into drugs, while glorifying life in the fast in his work. These days, he’s remembered for being a rough-and-tumble character, a rebel without a cause, a man consumed by his demons.
I think it’s an important book to read (or listen to if that’s your thing). Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas shaped the literary landscape during a crucial time in American history, and to look back on it now gives us a unique look inside the cultural landscape of the time in which Thompson lived. I would just caution anyone that wants to pick it up to be ready for a wild ride.