Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, written by Hunter S. Thompson is…crazy. It’s a crazy story, filled with crazy characters, fueled by drugs, set against the backdrop of 1970s Las Vegas. The really crazy part is, that some of what’s in it is true. The novel follows a journalist, his lawyer, and their trunk full of drugs as they come to cover the Mint 400. An early version first appeared in Rolling Stone magazine, and would become the foundation of gonzo journalism.
The novel’s subtitle, A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, often earns it the description as a “road” novel but the journey the main character and his sidekick take goes beyond the open road. The story begins with journalist Raoul Duke and his lawyer, Dr. Gonzo, leaving on a trip to cover the Mint 400, also known as the Great American Desert Race. It took place in Las Vegas from 1968–1977, and then again from 2008 until now. But their trip, riddled with mishaps, misunderstandings and some wild hallucinations, is about more than the Mint 400. They are on a trip to find the American Dream, the thing that we all search for and hope for but so few of us ever seem to realize. And what better place to look for it in a city like Vegas, a place where hopes and dreams are traded for gambling chips and lip service promises.
I heard of the movie long before the book, but I’ve never gotten around to watching it. And while I liked the novel, I’m not sure it endeared me enough to the story to seek the film version out. If it’s on, I’ll watch it. If it’s not, I’ll survive.
I liked the novel, but it’s a trip. It’s hard enough to follow the rambling of a drugged-up individual in person; I don’t have the patience for an unreliable narrator. I get how the nonsensical rambling keeps us inside the journalist’s point of view. I get why that leads to the random tangents and conversations with people that may or may not be real. I understand how the drugs numb them to the things going on around them.
But it still bugs me.
Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas ended up being Thompson’s best-known work, although he came to prominence after writing Hell’s Angels, an account of the year he spent living and traveling with the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club. This wasn’t the craziest thing that Thompson would end up doing in his life; but it would be one of his defining moments. He was a rebel at heart; his commanding officer was quoted as saying, “Sometimes his rebel and superior attitude seems to rub off on other airmen staff members.” He blasted the hippies of his day for their lack of political dedication and their descent into drugs. These days, he’s remembered for being a rough-and-tumble character, a rebel without a cause, a man consumed by his demons.
I think it’s an important book to read (or listen to if that’s your bag). Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas shaped the literary landscape during a crucial time in American history, and to look back on it now gives us a unique look inside the cultural landscape of the time in which Thompson lived. But I would caution anyone that wants to pick it up to be ready for a wild ride.