Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: Review

10 November 2009

Written by: Lawrie Zion

When Hunter S. Thompson parted this world with a self-inflicted gunshot on February 20, 2005, he left behind a legion of devoted followers, a lifetime of consistently fascinating work, a legacy of amoral debauchery and a pithy suicide note left on the desk where a lifetime of work was born.

The note was entitled ‘Football Season Is Over’ and was scrawled with black marker in the frenetic, schizophrenic and drug-fuelled style of New Journalism that Thompson dubbed Gonzo Journalism, an ode to the eponymous Muppets character.

“No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won’t hurt.”

But now more than ever, almost five years since his death and 38 years since its publication, the relevance, appreciation and influence of Hunter’s crowning achievement in Gonzo journalism, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, proves that the football season will continue—with or without it’s coach.

Based on two rampages in Las Vegas, Nevada with his equally amoral Samoan attorney Oscar ‘Dr Gonzo’ Acosta, Fear and Loathing—as it is often shortened to by Hunter’s legion of fans— blurs the lines between fiction, reality, hallucination and journalism as Thompson searches for the ever-elusive American Dream.

Starting at literally 100 mph (160K) on the isolated desert highway stretch from LA to Vegas in a rented red convertible that the duo dub ‘The Great Red Shark’, Fear and Loathing never takes its foot off the gas, both in action and style. Written in short, frenzied chapters and passages that would later become a staple of Thompson’s work, Fear and Loathing is propelled by a schizophrenic, drug-hazed tone that is unrelenting in exposing the seedy underbelly of both Las Vegas, and the American Dream.

This frenetic approach to pacing and structure is as intentional as the novels non-linear and frequently confusing non-plot. Taking place primarily on the Las Vegas strip, it flows loosely between almost-chronological recollections, gradually threading a vague narrative that ultimately reinforces Thompson’s oddball views on life, journalism, politics, crime and violence. But each time Thompson and Dr Gonzo’s adventures begin to make some semblance of sense, Thompson purposely steps on the gas, quickly diminishing their ‘serious drug collection’ made up of grass, mescaline, acid, cocaine,  and “a whole galaxy of uppers , downers, screamers and laughers” by midway through the novel.

Some choice cuts from their depraved adventures include terrifying hitchhikers with grisly imagined murder plots, driving double the speed limit in the middle of the Nevada desert on an acid trip, losing cognitive function in a decadent circus-casino hybrid at the whim of a head full of ether, trashing and switching hotels and cars every 48 hours, and attending a District Attorney’s drug conference in the middle of a mescaline trip.

But as each hotel room is trashed and as each high wears off, a solemnity becomes apparent in Thompsons acerbic reflections. The melancholic lows culminate in what has come to be known as the ‘wave speech’. Described as Hunter’s favourite passage, the passage reads as a love letter to the 60s, a time where counter-culture briefly infiltrated mainstream America.

“You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning… 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.”

While some may find appeal in Thompson’s drug-fuelled, balls-to-the-wall attitude to life and adventure, it’s the sweet and sombre juxtaposition Thompson provides to these highs that makes Fear and Loathing the triumph that it is. While the hallucinations and highs allude to the hippie counter-culture that began to crumble around him, these lows perfectly capture the early 70s, a time John Lennon described as “just the same [as before], only I’m thirty and a lot of people have got long hair; that’s all”. Thompson himself called the book his reluctant salute to the drug culture of the 60s, placing the Woodstock generation’s optimism, innocence and naivette  in stark contrast to the violence, mayhem and decadence of the Las Vegas strip.

However at the time of its release, Fear and Loathing was reviewed almost universally as a debaucherous, futile and meaningless exercise in over-indulgence, with most critics missing entirely the historical relevance that hindsight now provides. The National Observer claimed the novel would only ever come off as a “mad, manic masterpiece” with copious drug use and extreme sleep deprivation, whilst the New York Times told readers not to even bother, sentiments largely shared in other reviews at the time of the novels release in the summer of 1972.

However many observers believed Thompson may just have been ahead of his time, with another New York Times review by Crawford Woods prematurely claiming that he  had “already written himself into the history of American literature, in what I suspect will be a permanent way” – something Thompson himself alluded to, once saying “Yesterday’s weirdness, is tomorrows reason why”.

Regardless of the negative flak, Thompson’s work struck a chord with the cult audience he had begun to cultivate two years prior with his non-fiction book Hell’s Angels, cementing his status as a progenitor of the New Journalism movement along with contemporaries such as Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote. Incorporating literary techniques into long-form journalism, the New Journalism movement had a profound effect on the climate of writing —in both literary and journalistic circles—during the 60s and 70s. Its influence still lingers today.

Australian writers such as Matthew Thompson and Guy Rundle, in particular, practice Thompson’s bastardised vision of New Journalism named Gonzo journalism most effectively; while a groundswell of Gonzo citizen-journalists have sprung from the rise of the blogosphere, naming their style Neo-Gonzo.

Even Hollywood has come knocking on Thompson’s door more than once. Played by Bill Murray in Where the Buffalo Roam (1980), and then by close-friend Johnny Depp in an exceptionally faithful adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), the cinematic  adaptations of Thompson have help cement the mythic and legendary cult-status Thompson was all too aware of.

With a new film adaptation on the way in the form of The Rum Diaries, and scores of young journalists embracing the participatory paths of journalism that Thompson pioneered, the mythic legend of Hunter S. Thompson and his magnum opus, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, proves that although Thompson’s ‘Football Season Is Over’, hunting season is still going strong.

“Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality. Weird heroes and mould-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of ‘the rat race’ is not yet final.”

—     Hunter S. Thompson- The Great Shark Hunt (1979)

Michael Calle is an emerging journalist who is on the cusp of comleting his Bachelor of Journalism degree at La Trobe University. His blog is called TERMINALS.

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  • Manuel Letran

    Brilliantly written with pace and substance!

    I’ll be looking forward reading further reports from this up and coming young journalist, Michael Calle.