Reading “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” as a Grown-Up

So what happens when you revisit a book that once seemed to you the height of cool, daring, and originality? A book that seemed so hip and fun and wild and out there . . . and you gradually realize that what seemed so fresh and innovative back when you were nineteen now seems a little forced and gimmicky.

That’s what it is like reuniting with Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971). Still a hoot, still fun to read, but not exactly the breakthrough piece of journalism I thought it was when I first encountered it back in the early Seventies.

fear & loathing book cover

Sometimes it may be better to not reunite with some of these books from our past. Better to let our fond memories stay unsullied by the passage of years and experience and (dare I say it?) maturity.

Because there’s a sophomoric excessiveness to the whole Fear and Loathing performance that begins to wear thin after a while. Reminds me a bit of those MTV “reality” shows like the Jackass franchise–where we see young people performing stupider and stupider stunts . . . wondering how long before some poor kid ends up in the emergency room, where the adults will valiantly try to save the young daredevil’s spleen.

Maybe you have to be young and intrepid and foolhardy to truly appreciate that kind of reckless performance.

Just as a reality check, I asked my friend Tom about Fear and Loathing and he had a similar reaction to mine upon re-reading it several years ago: “Just didn’t hold up for me . . . seemed kind of dumb.”

Which, I have to admit, was a bit of a relief because I thought maybe I was just being an old fart and a fuddy-dud for not responding to Fear and Loathing with the unbridled enthusiasm and appreciation I once did.

I know there are plenty of folks who still adore the book (it was made into a Johnny Depp film in 1998). But I’m not one of them.

hunter s thompson

For my money, Hunter Thompson’s peak may have been reached in his very first book, Hell’s Angels (1966) where the balance between being a “journalist” and being a “participant” in the story achieves a wonderfully complicated and delicate (first time anyone has ever used that adjective in reference to Thompson, I’ll bet) balance. Where the balance between “gonzo” and “journalism” is a bit more evenly split.

Yes, Thompson was part of that story too, but in Hell’s Angels our focus remains fixed on that strange and scary and fascinating motorcycle gang, not on Thompson, per se. When Thompson is stomped and severely beaten by the Angels near the end of the book, it doesn’t feel like a stunt, but as the price a journalist sometimes must pay for immersing himself so fully in a story. (Thompson actually lived and rode with the Angels for a year.) Thompson comes off as an intrepid, cool, and brave writer.

But the success of that book seems to have led Thompson down the road of more participation and less journalism–which reaches its zenith (or nadir, depending on your point of view) in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Let’s face it: Fear and Loathing is the ultimate young person’s book: wild, unfettered, over the top. All the drug-taking, trashing of hotel rooms, reckless driving . . . very cool to contemplate when we were lounging around the college quad smoking a joint and leafing through the latest issue of–what was back then the hippest magazine in town–Rolling Stone. (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was originally a long two-part article in the November 11 and 25, 1971 issues of Rolling Stone, which is where I first encountered it.)

Nowadays? Not so cool.

Now don’t get me wrong. There is plenty to like about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, plenty to admire, plenty to laugh at. The Ralph Steadman illustrations, by themselves, are worth the price of admission. The book is definitely worth reading.

F&L

But . . . really . . . Fear and Loathing is a one-note kind of performance. And a one-joke kind of book.

Here’s the one note: Hunter S. Thompson (in the guise of  his alter-ego, Raoul Duke) is one bad-ass dude who will get high anytime, anywhere, anyhow.  The very first paragraph sets the tone of everything that will follow:

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel lightheaded; maybe you should drive. . . . ” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”

The nightmarish animals are, of course, the drug-induced hallucinations of our intrepid narrator, Raoul Duke. In fact, much of the book is a litany of the drugs that Duke and his Samoan attorney (Dr. Gonzo) will be ingesting at various points throughout the story:

The sporting editors had also given me $300 in cash, most of which was already spent on extremely dangerous drugs. The trunk of the car looked like a mobile police narcotics lab. We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers . . . and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.

Here’s the one joke: In the course of a very substantial, two-part article in Rolling Stone, Thompson spends approximately 4% of the story actually writing about the two Las Vegas events he has been hired to report on: The annual Mint 400 desert motorcycle race, and the District Attorney’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. The rest of the time is spent covering . . . himself.

Thompson spends about two paragraphs trying to cover the Mint 400–which is so dusty that the race is impossible to observe. So instead we get a full report of Duke’s and Dr. Gonzo’s drug and alcohol antics.

The other subject gets a bit more play, but even here, the focus is almost entirely on the observer, not the event itself:

It was treacherous, stupid and demented in every way–but there was no avoiding the stench of twisted humor that hovered around the idea of a gonzo journalist in the grip of a potentially terminal drug episode being invited to cover the National District Attorney’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. . . .

It was dangerous lunacy, but it was also the kind of thing a real connoisseur of edge-work could make an argument for. Where, for instance, was the last place the Las Vegas police would look for a drug-addled fraud-fugitive who just ripped off a downtown hotel?

When Thompson takes his eye off himself and actually does some real reporting, the results can be rewarding. There are some very funny moments, for instance, when Thompson chronicles how out of touch the square law enforcement attendees of the conference are about the realities of the drug culture they are desperately trying to understand.

Here were more than a thousand top-level cops telling each other “we must come to terms with the drug culture,” but they had no idea where to start. They couldn’t even find the goddam thing. There were rumors in the hallways that maybe the Mafia was behind it. Or perhaps the Beatles.

Quotation-Hunter-S-Thompson-sports-Meetville-Quotes-89828

So yes, please go out and read (or re-read) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s a strange, weirdly addictive little book (just a shade over 200 pages). And while you’re at it, make sure to read Hell’s Angels–a better and, for my money, more enduring piece of journalism.

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22 Comments

Filed under baby boomers, books, literature

22 responses to “Reading “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” as a Grown-Up

  1. Fun post. Have never read Thompson’s Hell Angels, but you’ve whetted my appetite. Thanks.

    • Thanks for your comments. I actually read Hell’s Angels for the first time only recently and was amazed at how good it is. Funny how Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas got all the press, but Hell’s Angels is in my humble opinion a much more impressive book.

  2. Interesting piece! What other books by Thompson, aside from “Fear and Loathing” and “Hell’s Angels,” would you recommend?

    • Good question. I’ve read lots of Thompson over the years, but the book that stands out as a good compendium of his work is The Great Shark Hunt. It’s a collection of pieces he wrote in the Sixties and Seventies. It’s all over the place in terms of quality . . . but it provides a pretty good sense of his range (and limitations) as a writer. Hope you enjoy it if you decide to take a crack at it (warning: it is nearly 600 pages of nearly non-stop gonzo journalism).

  3. Rick Sarkisian

    Have you checked out Matt Taibbi’s work in Rolling Stone? Not exactly gonzo, but pretty close. Unfortunately he left RS recently.

    • I’ve got so much to keep up with lately that I don’t get to read RS as religiously as I once did. I’m sure I’ve read Taibbi’s work over the years, but nothing specific pops to mind. Anything particular you’d recommend? Thanks for the comment, always great to hear from you.

  4. Like you Erich, I found the drug escapades of Thompson and his “attorney” a bit pointless, there was no sense of learning or experiencing anything profound as a result of all those chemicals, just a lot of rather violent excess. But then, maybe that was part of him showing that the hippy dream had gone sour and the 70s were going to be a harder, more cynical era. Sections of the book are like requiem for 60s idealism, particularly the very eloquent “wave” speech.

    • Well put, Tom. Although, the “wave” passage is only a page and a half long and it’s really out of character with the manic tone and spirit of the rest of “Fear and Loathing” — but good point. Maybe it does hint at a larger seriousness of purpose than I’m giving Thompson credit for. Or maybe not.

      For those not sure of what passage Tom is referring to, there’s a lovely short interlude in the book where the narrator reminisces about the feeling of what it was like to have been in San Francisco in the mid-Sixties: “We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave . . . So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark–that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

  5. Erich, I always appreciate your insights into these favorites. What you said above makes me think about how sometimes it’s best to keep an old love in the past rather than trying to revisit one another in the present…. it can make the old glow go dim because that old magic is now gone. Obviously, you say much more than that- but that was what came to me first. Makes me think also about how some books/movies/etc. really can just be relevant/feel a certain way because of the era but that later, not so much. Makes me realize that really, not every thing deserves the label “classic.”

  6. Diahann, for that reason I have never watched The Shawshank Redemption a second time. Like many people, it gave me hope at a time in my life when I needed it, and changed my life in a way. I don’t need to revisit it.

    • Thanks Diahann & Tom for some interesting perspectives on this whole literary reunion thing.

      The problem is that I guess you never know for sure which of these reunions with old loves will disappoint you and make you sorry you ever reconnected . . . and which ones will rekindle something great that you thought was lost forever.

      I’ve had both experiences as I’ve been doing my “Books That Mattered” blog. Some reunions have been fantastic and really rewarding (like reuniting with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”) — while some others have fizzled a bit (like revisiting “On the Road” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”).

      I guess there’s no way to know for sure which reaction you’ll have. So, I suppose, we just have to bite the bullet and re-read (or re-watch or re-listen to) an old favorite and hope for the best. (I suppose this uncertainty holds true for reunions with people too???)

      Thanks so much for your interesting and always welcome comments.

  7. This is a great book, but not his best.

  8. “Fear & Loathing” is definitely worth a read — captures a certain drug-fueled zaniness that was in the air back then. And it’s screamingly funny. But not sure I can go all the way to “great” with you. But, as Mark Twain said, “it is difference of opinion that makes horse-races.” Thanks for reading along and commenting.

  9. I never reread any book before, but I can imagine reading one after so many years would change how one feels about the story. Your friend said…”seemed kind of dumb” and I think that would have me see it that way if I read it. I did enjoy your post, as always, very entertaining.

    • I know lots of people who wouldn’t think of re-reading books they’ve already read. I guess that kind of makes sense, given that there are so many books to read out there. Why go back?

      But there are definitely pleasures to be had in revisiting old ground. Kind of like going back to a piece of earth (a garden or meadow) that was planted years ago and seeing what’s happened over the years . . . what’s still growing, what’s thriving, what’s not. And these reunions tell you a lot about how you’ve changed over the years. Thx for the comments.

  10. Love hearing your take on these books. It’s so fascinating to see how our views of a book can change as we grow older. Every time we revisit it, the books (and us!) are a little different.

    • You’ve hit the nail on the head! That’s exactly why I’m writing this blog about “the books that mattered” — to see why we loved them then and how they look to us years later.

  11. You are so right about re-reading books we might have liked once-the same goes for movies don’t you think? I didn’t like the move “fear and loathing” and would think reading the book for the first time may be as tedious-thanks Erich for giving me an out! Hobo

    • As I’ve been exploring this issue of revisiting past favorites, it’s pretty clear that it can be a tricky exercise. Books or movies that we loved in our youth, may not strike us the same way they did when we were younger. Some may look better. Some worse. They always seem a little different than I recall.

      I recently watched Stanley Kubrick’s “Doctor Strangelove” — after not having seen it for decades — and was totally disappointed. Back in college, I thought that film was the best satirical movie comedy ever made. And now? . . . seemed pretty lame and unfunny. Go figure.

      • Rick Sarkisian

        I saw Strangelove recently also, in response to a some former official in a position to know, that it really was not fiction. The Doomsday scenario planning actually exists on all sides (China as well now). Erich, perhaps that is why you didn’t find it funny. I found it scary.

      • Hi Rick — hope all is well. Good to hear from you again . . . . yeah, well I definitely found the Doomsday scenario of Dr. Strangelove scary back then (and still do now).

        But the movie, itself, just didn’t hold up for me. Found it a little too pat and broad and just not as well done as I remembered. But that’s just my opinion. (I’m sure the film is on plenty of folks’ best comedies of all time list.) As Mark Twain said, “It is difference of opinion that makes horse races.”

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