There are some works that utterly change the way a writer looks at writing. Spenser’s “Epithalamion” was one for me. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” was another as was Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom”. Works that stopped me in my tracks and said “Language can do THIS. Plot can do THIS. Narrative can do THIS.” That said “Put down the pen until you think you’re able to do what real writers do.”
Before them all was Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” – and it is included here not solely out of vanity, but because the impact Thompson had as a writer and as an observer of America begins with this book.
For those unfamiliar with it, “Fear and Loathing” ostensibly tells the tale of a writer and a lawyer who go to Las Vegas to write about a motorcycle race. And while that actually was the impetus for the work (Sports Illustrated did hire Thompson to write about the Mint 400 race in Las Vegas), “Fear and Loathing” is about motorcycles in much the same way World War I is about archduke Franz Ferdinand: It’s in there somewhere, but there’s a lot of much much bigger stuff going on.
A lot of which has to do with drugs. Indeed, the sheer quantity of drugs catalogued, lost, ingested, purchased, and fought over is mind-boggling, and even if you don’t like drugs or drug culture you have to admire the obvious expertise that Thompson brings to the topic. Along with the drugs are handguns and other implements of destruction. And there’s a convention of the nation’s District Attorneys. All against the backdrop of Las Vegas, back in the bad old days before it became Disneyfied, when it was still seedy scary, violent, and twisted.
Which means “Fear and Loathing” is laugh out loud funny.
It’s also this:
“Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era — the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant…
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of ‘history’ it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time — and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda… You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.…
And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. 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.”
If for no other reason, “Fear and Loathing” is valuable as a document of its time – and of the demographic with the most money to spend at that time or any other (that is, the Baby Boomers). But it’s much more than that. Because the writing – the way of attacking a subject, the sense of cool detachment that makes one capable of dropping literary allusions even amidst a psychological meltdown, the humour balanced with brilliant sociological insight undercut with self-deprecation and self-absorption – these are the things that, for good or ill, resonate. That have launched generations of imitators, in advertising and other forms of popular culture, that set the standard that writers across America and around the globe have attempted to carry on in a desperate attempt to be even fractionally as honest and true and valuable to their times as Hunter S. Thompson was to his.
That’s why you should read it.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by Hunter S. Thompson was published by Random House on 11/11/71 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).