Happy Anniversary

Fifty Years of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson

Any book beginning outside of Barstow means trouble.

Hunter S. Thompson’s now-classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream hits the half-century mark this summer. Originally appearing as two articles in successive issues of Rolling Stone magazine in November of 1971 (attributed to “Raoul Duke”), it was published as a book by Random House in the summer of 1972. Then a work of “gonzo journalism,” it is now a work of literature—“the news that stays news,” in Ezra Pound’s famous definition.

Or is it? Thompson’s reputation is hard to gauge these days. It was certainly riding high at the turn of the century. The 1998 film adaption of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Johnny Depp—developed a cult following, becoming part of the Criterion Collection in 2004. Thompson then took his own life in 2005, and career retrospectives followed his unusual funeral at his longtime home in Colorado.

Whether his works will remain part of the literary canon remains to be seen. They are clearly still valuable; earlier this summer, Bauman Rare Books at the Venetian was selling a first edition of Thompson’s first book, Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (1967), for $1,600. And the newest edition of the eminent Norton Anthology of American Literature retains a one-page excerpt from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas about the Circus Circus hotel and casino, ensuring that at least a small piece of Thompson will continue to appear regularly in the American college classroom.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a wild ride—“exhilarating, ill-advised, and inescapable,” according to the new introduction penned by Caity Weaver for its fiftieth anniversary. Beginning as a Sports Illustrated assignment to write a few words about a motorcycle race, it morphs into mocking coverage of a National District Attorneys’ Association convention in higher pursuit of the American Dream. While the madness of the machine-gun prose can become tiring, the momentum is sustained by Thompson’s conviction that whatever’s he’s doing is entirely rational.

But Thompson’s book is essentially about two things: Las Vegas and drugs. And it’s more perceptive about both than it’s often given credit for.

At the time Thompson was writing, Vegas was largely appreciated as glitzy and kitschy. In a celebrated 1964 essay for Esquire, Tom Wolfe praised the modern advertising aesthetics of the city as “a wonderful picture of sex riding the crest of the future.” But whereas Wolfe saw in Vegas an American avant-garde, Thompson saw instead an American apocalypse. The carnivalesque Circus Circus, which opened in 1968, struck him as a sick Nazi fantasy.

Critics could carp that Thompson’s style is too self-indulgent, elevating himself as the chief subject of interest. But nothing could be more germane to a Las Vegas account than self-indulgence. Thompson realized that a major aspect of Sin City is its willingness to turn a blind eye to drug use, an aspect that is ultimately more attractive to many tourists than is legalized gambling. He also captured—perhaps paradoxically—the fundamental conservativeness of Las Vegas. While some might be tempted to frame it as extremely progressive on social issues (drug use, sex work, etc.), the city is anything but avant garde. It’s bent on evoking the pleasures of an earlier time for middle-aged customers from the Midwest. “A week in Vegas is like stumbling into a Time Warp, a regression to the late fifties,” he observed. “People like Sinatra and Dean Martin are still considered ‘far out’ in Vegas.”

And for all its depictions of drug use (Thompson’s “Duke” is a self-styled “drug person”), Fear and Loathing is not just a hallucinatory navel gaze at the individual effects of various uncontrolled substances. The book is also remarkably insightful about the problems with policing drugs in the United States. Thompson’s attendance at the district attorneys’ conference (“If the Pigs were gathering in Vegas for a top-level Drug Conference, we felt the drug culture should be represented”) reveals to him that the authorities, just like the glazed-over slot-machine patrons, are woefully out of touch with what’s really going on.

“These poor bastards didn’t know mescaline from macaroni,” writes Thompson. “The popularity of psychedelics has fallen off,” he insists. “The big market, these days, is in Downers”—opioids, narcotics. Thompson casts himself as an aging druggie throwback, primarily interested in passé hallucinogens like marijuana, mushrooms, and LSD. He saw a more dangerous turn to heroin that the cops were missing. “‘Consciousness Expansion went out with LBJ,” he concludes, “and it is worth noting, historically, that downers came in with Nixon.” Crawford Woods of the New York Times was right to hail Fear and Loathing as “the best book on the dope decade.” Rather than render drugs as essentially harmless or as fun personal choices, Thompson recognized in the new crop of narcotized users a darker fate for his country.

This Kierkegaardian kook has earned a place in American literary history.

To really appreciate Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas today, you have to keep in mind the fundamental strangeness of America in 1971—“this doomstruck era of Nixon.” The dawn of the new decade was a sober and frightening morning-after; the peaceful hopes of the mid-1960s had been conclusively shattered. The Summer of Love (1967) had been replaced by Easy Rider (1969), blown off the road by shotgun. Even the gentlemanly Columbia University professor Jacques Barzun, speaking to an audience in Cincinnati in 1969, declared that “we are in a period of well-nigh total dissolution.”

And the explosive 1971 reports on the Pentagon Papers made it clear that, for years and years, the mainstream media had been calmly delivering to the public a mass of government lies. In light of such revelations, one could see how a writer like Thompson, assigned to type up a few words about dirt bike racing, might become quite skeptical of the enterprise as a whole and pen instead the following screed: “Journalism is not a profession or trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits—a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage.” (A screed, indeed, that arguably applies much more accurately to today’s social mediascape.) If Thompson’s own writing was absurd, it was no more absurd than the official bromides offered at a convention on “drug culture” for American law enforcement agents.

In any case, Thompson himself is work of art; his larger-than-life personality invites imitation (you can purchase your own Raoul Duke Halloween costume) and caricature. Even Johnny Depp’s 1998 portrayal of him is far too cartoonish; in hindsight, Depp seems to have been inspired by the popularity of Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura. Bill Murray’s Thompson, in the 1980 film Where the Buffalo Roam, is a much better depiction.

At the end of the day, Thompson is too good of a character to fade away. Today’s readers may be turned off by his penchant for violence, his offensive vocabulary, his ogling of UNLV undergraduates. But this Kierkegaardian kook has earned a place in American literary history.

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