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Gonzo good fun!
on 30 January 2015
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”
is one of my favourite opening lines in literature. Two paragraphs later are the equally brilliant lines:
“I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red Shark toward the shoulder of the highway. No point mentioning those bats, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough.”
That whole opening narration sets the tone of chaos and comedy told in a perfect deadpan that defines this book.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is a modern classic of American literature and is the cause for untold numbers of irresponsible Vegas road trips.
Published in 1971, it tells the semi-true story of when Hunter S Thompson and Oscar Acosta (renamed here as Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo) went on a drug-fuelled road trip from LA to Vegas where Thompson was commissioned by Sports Illustrated to do a write-up on the Mint 400 motorcycle race in the desert.
The drugs they consume - marijuana, mescaline, all kinds of pills, cocaine, opiates, LSD, ether, and adrenochrome - lead to whacky adventures and surreal hallucinations as the pair barrel through a plotless non-story where they also cover a drug convention full of cops and go in search of The American Dream - or its corpse. Our anti-heroes learn nothing and have no character arcs - and it’s perfect!
I read Fear and Loathing some fifteen years ago when I was a teenager and remember devouring it in one go, laughing the whole time - it instantly became one of my favourite books. Years later, I’m glad to say it still holds up. I wouldn’t say it’s as intoxicating still, but it remains a terrific book and really funny to boot.
What’s most striking about Fear and Loathing is Thompson’s unique voice narrating with a loquacious urgency and an intelligently arresting, feverish, tone. It’s what makes this book so original. And that has to be stated: Fear and Loathing is ORIGINAL.
It’s said that there are seven basic plots in the world that get repeatedly used; so how do you get around that to create something new? Abandon plot altogether! Because, yes, there’s a kind of setup with the road trip and reporting, but nothing that could be concretely described as plot. Fear and Loathing careens around at high velocity though it’s aimless – and that’s fine because the book’s strength lies in Thompson’s unstoppable descriptive narration. The book also marked a shift from the author as the creator of the story to the author as the story.
And no, Fear and Loathing isn’t the first plotless novel or the first to feature the author as main character. It’s not the first to have a road trip or hallucinations feature prominently - I don’t mean it’s original in that sense. But there had never been a voice like Thompson’s before in literature - he’s the only reason this book is so much fun and so famous - and he would set a style that would be oft imitated for decades to come.
It’s also notable for being the first Gonzo book, meaning a blend of fiction, non-fiction, and fantasy. Cartoonist Ralph Steadman’s iconic line drawings capture the mania of Thompson’s potent writing and helped define Gonzo as a literary style.
But Fear and Loathing also has more traditional literary features, as befits a writer heavily influenced by Fitzgerald and Hemingway. The search for The American Dream, as abstract as it sounds, takes the form of the novel as well as a real place Duke and Gonzo go searching for – and turns out to be a long burned-out bar (heavy-handed symbolism, Thompson!).
The form of the novel could be seen as an indictment of the American Dream, post-idealistic ‘60s. There are snippets of news stories dropped into the text highlighting that ‘Nam was still ongoing, Nixon was in the White House and declared a “war on drugs” that persists today, people on drugs were killing others, and maybe Thompson wanted Duke and Gonzo to embody the America he saw in 1971: self-destructive, paranoid, and almost wilfully stupid.
Duke and Gonzo end up driving around in a white Cadillac Eldorado which Duke describes as “the White Whale” perhaps a nod to what is often described as “the Great American Novel”, Moby Dick. Are Duke and Gonzo the white whale themselves, elusive and hunted – is that what the “Fear and Loathing” of the title references? – or are they demented Ahabs, chasing the white whale of the American Dream?
While it has a lot of positives, I wouldn’t say Fear and Loathing is perfect. Certain skits like when Duke and Gonzo pretend to be undercover agents to the cleaning lady, or in the bar where Gonzo goes too far in soliciting a female bartender, were very unfunny and felt a bit dated. And, like the tail end of a bender, the novel starts to taper off towards the end and feels like its outstayed its welcome.
Make no mistake though: Fear and Loathing is an outstanding novel. Thompson’s irresistible voice is captured forever between the covers to entertain - and it is incredibly entertaining - for generations to come. Is it an important novel? I think there’s a case to be made for it being of minor literary import and I really think those first twenty pages or so could easily stand up to anything by Twain or Hemingway.
But for me, and probably for you, the real question is, is it a fun read? And it is. It’s so damn cool and sure of itself, the book swaggers! Pick this one up whenever you want to go on the greatest road trip ever.
No point mentioning some of the great scenes that await you inside - you’ll see them soon enough.