This is the perennial drug book. There aren’t many of us that haven’t used or abused a drug or two in our day – in fact, complete puritanical abstention is looked upon as perverse and enigmatic. Picture the general reaction when one admits they don’t drink, for instance. Trust in that individual seems to diminish immediately, somehow, as though the sharing of an intoxicated state is a particular type of social engagement. Still, all but the most intense drug users pale in comparison to the hyper-drugged Raoul Duke & Dr Gonzo of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s the sheer spectacle of the off-the-wall depravity coupled with the brilliant blade-of-the-tongue wit of the protagonists that gives this novel it’s immediate and long-lasting fascination. It is as potent today as it was when it was published in 1971.
In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit the extent of my own drug experience. I drink liquor occasionally; generally whiskey, or rum, sometimes. I smoke marijuana when the mood takes me. I’ve never smoked a cigarette though I’ve had tobacco in joints (perhaps those more educated in the parlance could explain if this is indeed a ‘blunt’? It’s my understanding that that particular term implies a cigar paper but I’m unsure). I tried mushrooms once when portaging in Algonquin Park but beyond a shiny sense of joy I didn’t get anything out of them.
This seems like an unnecessary and perhaps too-personal revelation to preface a book review. Perhaps so. But Fear and Loathing is not an ordinary book, so the rules must be amended where necessary. With all of that pseudo-legalese dispensed with, let’s get onto the review.
The strength of the book rests squarely upon Thompson’s inimitable prose style. He characterizes himself and his associate, Dr Gonzo, as fast-talking, quick thinking psychopaths with little if any regard for the consequences of any particular action. Thompson himself, as alter-ego Raoul Duke, is at times wild and devil-may-care, and at others, cautiously, almost sorrowfully introspective. The tone can vary widely from one passage to the next, but in the distinctive authorial voice it never feels contrived. Most often, though, Duke is demonstrated to be a cunning aficionado of the Drug Culture, who sees his assignment to Vegas as the perfect chance to flow through the sedulously curated drug-kit in an unbroken chain as he and his attorney search the city for the American Dream.
It’s debatable as to whether they find it, but that’s beside the point. We’re along for the ride like a nervous hitchhiker on an empty desert road, witnessing the endless carousel of empty people and empty promises through the fractured lens of Duke. It is a revealing journey, and I saw myself bitterly refracted in its jagged edges that constitute this book.
Is it all glitz and glorification, though? All acerbic wit and wry observation in Magical Drugland? Thompson is constantly showing us scenes of danger, of violence, of illness and terror. He is more or less in control, most of the the time, a steady hand at the prow during these high-tension moments to which the ‘regular people’ fully succumb. Dr Gonzo, too, is rarely shaken, though he too is volatile and unpredictable. The repartee between Duke and Gonzo is thrilling, because we’re ‘in on it’ – we understand the rapid-fire con game that is their default method of interacting with the public. To an outside observer, though – the public, in this case – things might look quite a bit different. There is also the decrepit conditions in which they live, described in lurid detail.
I think the reason it works is because of who these two particular people are. They’re brilliant con-men, at heart, and the dedication to drug use is just part of the experience. The less able-minded could not handle the situations and mental states in which Duke and Gonzo routinely find themselves. A lesser mortal might be subject to consequence, arrest, or a toxic event – not so our doctor of journalism and his erratic attorney.
My girlfriend raised an interesting point when we discussed this book tonight. (She had read it just prior to me, and we had both watched the film together before I read the book.) This discussion came mid-review so bear with me! She suspects Duke and Gonzo do find the American Dream – that by the end, they’re the material embodiments of it. Their will and whim is their only guide; some vague, impersonal entity is footing the bill (if it’s being paid at all) and they always see another day dawn.
In this light, even the unfortunate ramifications (Gonzo puking out of the car repeatedly, for instance, or the brutal come-down from a cocktail of pharmaceuticals) aren’t negative, they’re part of the experience.The self exists as it does for as long as it does and every up and down goes along with that. Duke and his attorney ride the wave time after time, brushing up against disaster before wit and dumb luck spring them to safety to do it all again after a quick black coffee and a hit of mescaline.
Of course there is also the topic of Ralph Steadman’s illustrations. They’re stark and powerful glimpses at a twisted nightmare world with slashes of blackest ink on white. They couple well with the narrative, lending it a much more menacing atmosphere than the often jocular prose would suggest. It’s an excellent pairing the book would palpably lack were they missing. (They also seem at least partly intended to increase page count. Fear and Loathing is a brisk read I went through over a weekend of work and homework.)
So in conclusion, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a highly recommended read. From the insightful, acerbic lament for the lost ideals of the Sixties, to the often hilarious, inexplicable dialogue, Hunter S. Thompson has created a seminal work of outrageous and introspective fact-based-fiction.