Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

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By Hunter S. Thompson; Vintage Books; @1971; 204 pages.

Since I’m soon to be off to Las Vegas to see my father on Father’s Day—and to experience this iconic city, I thought it would be appropriate to read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I’ve heard about this book (and movie) for years, but somehow never got around to it, sort of how I never got around to Las Vegas.

Like Thompson, I am in search of the American Dream. I want to know what the American Dream means to me.

Hunter S. Thompson (and Jack Kerouac) would have us believe that the American Dream is about taking what you can get. There is an absence of responsibility and a love of indulgence. (Look at Las Vegas—enormous fountains of water in the desert dancing with lights.)

If the drug culture scene bothers you, don’t read this book.

So, on a sleepy Sunday morning (cue Johnny Cash music which might have been appropriate but was never referenced in the book), while the cold Spring wind whips through the trees and cancels out any warmth the sun could possibly offer, the following paragraph, the first paragraph in fact, makes me chuckle:

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 a bit 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.

Our protagonist, Raoul Duke, is on his way to Las Vegas to write a news story about the Mint 400, “the richest off-the-road race for motorcycles and dune-buggies in the history of organized sport.”

I won’t give the details of what was in the trunk of his car. Suffice it to say that he and his attorney were very thorough:

The only way to prepare for a trip like this, I felt, was to dress up like human peacocks and get crazy, then screech off across the desert and cover the story.

From there the story descends into drug-addled mischief. I thought the part about the hitchhiker was outstanding. The voice of the novel was strong. Whereas Keroac really put me off with his irresponsibility, with Thompson, it’s somehow forgivable, understandable, and endearing. I think this is because throughout the book, there is the thread of personal reflection that this might not really be the best way to behave, but since he has chosen this path, he’s going to do his best—to excel. The guy is an overachiever in this realm. Maybe that’s what I like. He’s no slacker once he’s chosen his course.

By the end of the book, Raoul Duke has broken every Vegas rule: burning the locals, abusing the tourists, and terrifying the help.

Except for the strength of the narrator’s voice, I don’t see much reason to read this book. It was ok, but that’s not quite enough these days.

I’m not sure this book got me much closer to the American Dream; I don’t really have that much hope for Vegas either, but maybe. Here’s a quote from the end of the book that I thought would be interesting to ponder, or come back to:

…This was the fatal flaw of Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling “consciousness expansion” without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him too seriously….But their [acid freaks] loss and failure is ours, too. What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped to create…a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody—or at least some force—is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel.

In the middle of reading the book, I watched the movie. Even though I enjoyed Johnny Depp’s performance, I don’t recommend the movie. The book somehow was less offensive.

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6 thoughts on “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

  1. Interesting take on it. I see why you didn’t like it. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But, I do think it’s worth a read, in the same way Clockwork Orange and Tainspotting are worth the effort…

    I loved fear and loathing, the book and the movie (although admittedly, I watched the movie first…) I guess my take-away from it wasn’t really the drugs or the setting or the particulars of the ‘plot’ at all. There’s a paragraph in the book (I would look it up, but I’m feeling lazy) wherein the narrator discusses how it all just happened and maybe it didn’t mean anything, but he hopes it did. That was a pivotal moment for me. This book could have happened anywhere, with any setting in America. Setting and situation are inconsequential. The point is the narrator’s journey–the individual–and like you said, it’s the narrative voice that’s the strongest element of the book. I think it’s worth the read for that perspective on life, if anything. The idea of the solitary man taking the journey.

    Also, gonzo style is wicked. And Thompson created it. It’s influenced generations of writers after, so if you’re into the history of the novel it’s worth a read for the historical significance.

    As for the American Dream as represented in the novel, it’s quite a bleak outlook… But there’s been disertations written on that, so I won’t tackle it here 🙂

    Are you at least glad you read it and have it in your repetoire?

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  2. First of all, thank you for your comment. It’s got me thinking.

    I like your point about how the story could have taken place anywhere. I like the idea too of how it all just happened and maybe it didn’t mean anything, but he’s hoping it did.

    Now I’m feeling a little guilty that I didn’t like it so much. I thought that Thompson had some interesting points to make, but I had a hard time understanding them. I recognized that they were there, but I didn’t always get it. (Maybe I’m a product of my generation; I need to be spoon-fed—not exactly a good thing.) I loved the vividness of the first chapter. But the violence and complete disregard of other people’s property and maybe even humanity bothered me. Probably this is because I have witnessed this firsthand in my own life, so the fictional element of it (or, I guess this wasn’t really fiction) blends too much with reality for me. I’m identifying with the waitress, the maid, the tourists, the hotel staff a little more than I can identify with Raoul and his attorney.

    Raoul’s violence is kind of a dirty bomb kind of violence. It’s faceless and self absorbed. It doesn’t care who it hits or affects; it just needs to be expressed. And that’s not really my style. In school when the teacher said so-and-so ruined if for everyone, I always thought that was incredibly unfair. I wanted so-and-so suffering in the corner alone for his crimes against kindergartners while the rest of us got on with our day, in happiness.

    But could that be the point. Could it be that as a society we are just as responsible for the actions of one Raoul Duke as we are for our own? That our actions have shaped his whether we want to admit it or not?

    Or, was Raoul just on a hedonist joyride? And as much as he wanted others to treat him “gently,” he was blind to the fact that he never extended the same gentleness that he craved?

    I did get caught up in the drugs and the plot. And to some extent, I think that’s ok because those are vital elements of a story.

    I don’t regret reading it. I didn’t think it was a waste of time. The voice, like I said, was amazing. So very strong.

    So, I’ll say that for all the questions the book raises, maybe it is worth a closer more thoughtful read than I was willing to give it. Funny how our own perceptions of subject matter can put us off and blind us to the points that people are trying to raise. But that’s part of the magic of literature.

    Thanks again!

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  3. american dream, great name for a race horse, wonderful if you love food stamps, have a desire to live like a roman emperor, can afford a cheap mexican, love to fire guns, can afford health care and a good education, that cuts out most of the population i’d say, and if you want to go full on, you dont mind killing strangers remotely in far away places cause you think they might harm you 10,000 miles from where they live, some dream.

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    1. I recently proofread a graduate thesis in computer science that had as its premise that when given a choice that MOST people do good. This sort of soft idea in a hard science astounded and intrigued me. Could it be true? And what are the larger implications of that idea?

      I too wondered what the American Dream is. And the mantra: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness came to me. But one man’s pursuit of happiness can often intrude upon another’s. There is the idea also that all men are created equal and have the same rights. This is a good dream. Let’s not be so embittered by the actions of a powerful few that we forget the powers that we have at our disposal.

      Let us also study the history of mankind whenever we might become disillusioned that our world is not perfect and “remember” how we as a species have acted over the centuries. WE can do better, and we must do better. We can dare to dream and we can evolve. Because nothing less is worthy of the noblest of us.

      So what to do? Be friends with those who believe as you do. Be patient with those who do not. Believe that most people when given a choice will do good. Know that it’s in our DNA to act poorly, but rejoice that we have developed a brain that can recognize when we are in the wrong. Vote. Write. Draw. Look for ideas and solutions.

      And remember that the word “America” although coopted by the U.S. consists not only of the United States. America is a mighty big place (north, central, and south) and the dream is alive all over the world.

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