“History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of ‘history’ it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time – and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.”
Hunter S. Thompson is best known for his time spent with and writing about the Hell’s Angels. He popularized a type of reporting style called Gonzo Journalism, which can best be described as a blend of fact and fiction. Here in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson makes use of that Gonzo style – blending fantastical elements to create an over-the-top drug addled story about his search for the American Dream in Las Vegas as he covers first the Mint 500 race and then (hilariously) a drug convention.
The writing style reminds me a lot of Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. A cursory read through of Thompson’s short biography tells me that he lived in San Francisco for a time and did come in contact and have connections with some of the Beatnik writers, though Thompson is not associated with the Beat movement. Still, a lot of this reminds me of Burroughs – from the drug use, the exaggerated characters, and the language that makes you wonder just what the fuck are you reading?
I don’t think this book is particularly easy to digest. The characters are detestable, the sequence of events more than a little unbelievable, and there’s the profuse use of drugs. Of course, beneath all that Thompson states his main purpose in writing this book: his hunt for the American Dream. But what is the American Dream? Arguably, it is simply wealth and money. Where to find it? Las Vegas. Because who doesn’t dream of becoming rich with no actual work involved? Raoul Duke is sent to Vegas as a reporter to cover stories but we don’t actually see him doing the actual work as a reporter, instead we are treated to his drug infused antics with his Samoan attorney. We never know what is actually fact and what is fiction. Other than locations and maybe some of the people, I’m willing to bet almost all of it is fiction. Keeping in mind that Raoul (and Thompson himself) is operating through a haze of drugs and alcohol.
So what is the appeal of this? Why is this Thompson’s best known work? Just like the Beatniks, its a work that speaks to its time. It’s a criticism on the counterculture of the sixties. The sixties, a wonderfully interesting decade in American history. It was a time of great change – the hippie culture, anti-war protests, women’s movement, left-wing liberalism and idealism that inspired the youth of the country. But, of course, there are always those that will take a good thing too far. Like The Great Gatsby, this is Thompson’s commentary on excess. The excess drive for pleasure and the excess use of drugs. Duke and the Attorney are no longer people, they’re monsters or savages – stripped of morals, basic human decency, and operating within society like animals. Amazingly enough, society not only allows it but even indulges it, in some cases. And isn’t that the way of the world? If you have enough money and a name for yourself, you are above the restrictions of our social structure. You are above the law.
In this case, Fear and Loathing is an excellent commentary on the excesses of a decade and the immorality and baselessness that it has produced.