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.
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.
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.
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.
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.