Fear and Loathing Turns 40

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Hunter S. Thompson wanted to write a book devoted to the “death of the American Dream,” but he never truly got around to it.

Hunter Stockton Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in search of the American Dream. Or so claims Raoul Duke, Thompson’s alter ego and the narrator of the book that sprung from their crazy and weird adventures—Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. Their doomed, deranged, and drug-addled quest defined a generation. When it first came out, the New York Times called it “the best book on the dope decade.” Forty years after its publication in Rolling Stone in November of 1971, Fear and Loathing still has something to say about the American Dream, though it might have changed its guises throughout the years.

Thompson’s book isn’t just dealing with the dashed dreams of the ’60s counterculture but the immortal problem of dreams—theirs, ours, the future’s. Every decade delivers its own version of the American Dream, the ceaseless pursuit of love, happiness, and cool. And yet that dream never quiet works out. Thompson seems to ask us again and again: why are humans so stupid to keep on dreaming?

When Fear and Loathing was first published, it was often read as an attempt to come to terms with the failures of the ’60s and to criticize the “doomstruck era of Nixon.” Indeed, in 1971, morale was low. The Harris public opinion poll claimed that 60% of Americans were against the Vietnam War. The New York Times began publishing sections of the Pentagon Papers, showing that the Government had been lying to its People. Charles Manson received the death penalty. Nixon declared War on Drugs. But not all readers found that Thompson’s book merely evoked the pessimism of the new era. For Jay Cowan, Thompson’s close friend and biographer, Fear and Loathing was not at all a “chronicling of broken dream and shattered lives” but “outrageous, alive, hysterical, and even inviting.” Indeed, Thompson re-approached the failing American Dream with sly wit and gallows humor. Hippies, gurus, drugs, booze, sex, Leary, Nixon: nothing escapes Thompson’s biting satire, not even himself.

After all, when Thompson was commissioned to write the articles that would become Fear and Loathing, he was already a rock-star writer partying with other rock stars. He was a reckless driver, unrepentant drug abuser, multiple felon, libertine, and a badass writer. His style was raw, wild, and funny. He reveled in first-person narration, often becoming the center of the story. Magazines couldn’t get enough of his work, even though he was rumored to be an unapologetic procrastinator who went on speed binges to make deadlines. In short, Thompson seemed to be living a rebel’s version of the American Dream on the one hand and mocking it as a fruitless pursuit on the other. But this discrepancy between the lived and the examined life doesn’t just stem from hypocrisy. The art of writing and the problem of the American Dream went hand in hand with Thompson who claimed that he taught himself how to write by copying out F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby on a typewriter. Like Fitzgerald, Thompson explored the insatiable American Dream by writing about the world around him and by being a celebrity writer living the dream in that same world.

Although Thompson is still famous for being the father of gonzo journalism, a term coined by Bill Cardoso of the Boston Globe, Thompson mocks that label in Fear and Loathing, which he called a “failed experiment in gonzo journalism.” What started as a journalistic assignment brilliantly veered into experimental literature. It all began when Thompson was researching the killing of TV journalist Rubén Salazar, who was shot by officers during a protest march against the Vietnam War. Thompson wanted to interview Acosta, a prominent Mexican-American activist. Taking advantage of a Sports Illustrated assignment to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race, he invited Acosta to Vegas, and so the unforgettable characters of Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo were born. When Sports Illustrated rejected Thompson’s piece, Rolling Stone sent him back to Vegas to check out the National District Attorneys’ Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. In the book, Raoul Duke can’t say no to the tempting offer: “It was treacherous, stupid and demented in every way—but there was no avoiding the stench of twisted humor that hovered around the idea of a gonzo journalist in the grip of a potentially terminal drug episode being invited to cover the National District Attorneys’ Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.”

Fear and Loathing is thus an unclassifiable masterpiece that willfully meanders between fact and fiction, reportage and the novel, reality and dreams. Thompson freely intersperses obscenities with lyricism. His writing takes a particularly virtuoso turn when it appears that Duke and Gonzo might finally hit upon the American Dream. Just when the two are about to enter the Old Psychiatrist’s Club that may or may not have housed the American Dream, an “editor’s note” interrupts the flow of the narrative to explain that the “tape cassettes for the next sequence are impossible to transcribe due to some viscous liquid encrusted behind the heads.” We never find out what happens inside. Thompson doesn’t just pull the reader’s leg—he flips the middle finger. And yet, this hysterical style skillfully conveys the sheer madness of the search that the doped-out, modern versions of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza undertake.

Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo’s escapades range from hilarious to down-right horrific—often both. The two trip constantly and drive only when drinking. They bully tourists, terrorize the staff, vandalize property, and order six hundred bars of translucent Neutrogena soap to their hotel room. Because they can. In the midst of all this mayhem, Dr. Gonzo finds time to pick up a religious fanatic named Lucy (who, besides God, worships Barbara Streisand), gives Lucy LSD, and seduces her. It’s not always clear if what we are reading is based on real events, a description of a drug vision, or Thompson’s deliberate fiction. Take his description of adrenochrome—the “stuff that makes pure mescaline seem like ginger beer” and that allegedly comes from “the adrenaline gland from a living human body.” According to Cowan, Thompson loved the idea that, although the fact that adrenochrome had to come from a living human being should have discredited the whole thing, people still went on speculating whether such a drug existed. Readers apparently forgot that adrenochrome was one of the ingredients in the house cocktail served at Korova Milk Bar, from Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange.

No matter how twisted Duke and Gonzo’s trips get, however, we are constantly reminded that the reality around them is more terrifying—“in a town full of bedrock crazies, nobody even notices an acid freak.” The Circus-Circus is described as “what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war.” Gamblers can just lift their heads from the blackjack table and ogle a half-naked fourteen-year-old female trapeze artist among other— crazy yet real—things that they can get away with. It’s not just Vegas that’s gone mad. Outside reality seeps in through the TV set, as Duke hears about the Laos Invasion—“a series of horrifying disasters: explosions and twisted wreckage, men fleeing in terror” and “Pentagon generals babbling insane lies.” But Fear and Loathing isn’t just funny and outrageous, it’s also fiercely intelligent.

Thompson doesn’t simply blame, lament, or celebrate the dreams of the ’60s generation. Instead, he lucidly explains that the “essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture” was “the desperate assumption that somebody—or at least some force—is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel.” Then he makes a move that is as provocative as it is painful to hear. He diagnoses this “assumption” to be “the same cruel and paradoxically benevolent bullshit that has kept the Catholic Church going for so many centuries” and compares at least some of the Love Generation’s beliefs, in particular those in various “gurus,” with the “the military ethic… a blind faith in some higher and wiser authority.” Perhaps, the strangest and most poignant thing that Raoul Duke has the hardest time coping with is the persistence of dreams amidst all the madness. It is in “the foul year” of 1971 that John Lennon releases “Power to the People” and “Imagine.”

Thompson wanted to write a book devoted to the “death of the American Dream,” but he never truly got around to it. In the “Vegas book,” as Thompson liked to call it, the American Dream never died, or rather, new varieties of it come cropping up time and again with each generation that never learns. By the end of his tale, Duke concludes: “Nobody had learned anything—or at least nothing new.” It would be too easy, if the American Dream finally died, if Duke and Gonzo were able to locate its carcass. Instead, their quest is doomed to agony.

The epigram to Fear and Loathing is a quotation from Samuel Johnson: “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” Duke and Gonzo spend their time trying to dampen the pain of being human. To be human is to dream and to take risks because dreams have a nasty habit of not coming true. When old dreams are broken, new ones are born, and the vicious cycle begins again. But the persistence of dreams, of course, is what also gives strength. It’s why two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Elvis Presley had the courage to sing “If I can Dream.”

Fear and Loathing is also full of songs. Duke and Gonzo listen to the car radio blasting Brewer and Shipley’s “One Toke over the Line” and The Rolling Stones’s “Sympathy for the Devil.” They quote lyrics from Dylan and Lennon. By the end of his tiresome, savage journey, Duke finds himself at the Vegas airport listening to the Stones’s “Love in Vain.” Songs become a kind of palliative—when there is nothing left to say and nowhere to go. The ending of Fear and Loathing is as enigmatic as the Bob Dylan’s masterpiece to which it is dedicated—“Mr. Tambourine Man.” Put simply, Dylan’s song is about making music. The singer asks the tambourine man to play for him because “the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming.” In the midst of emptiness and purposelessness, we never find out why the two carry on with their duet—all that’s left for them is to sing. Thompson himself often spoke about writing in musical terms, evoking the “high white notes” that Fitzgerald believed writers should strive for.

At the end of Fear and Loathing, Duke gets high and imagines himself “a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger.” It might seem odd at first that a writer, who mocks and wishes the death of the American Dream, compares himself to Horatio Alger, an author whose “rags to riches” stories helped fuel one of most famous American Dream myths. Then again, it’s also appropriate. As Cowan notes, Thompson was living every adolescent male’s dream for most of his life, and he was aware of it. Paradoxically, the man whose dream was to write the “death of the American Dream” ended up living it. Even though there was real pain behind the glamour of Thompson’s lifestyle and although he committed suicide in 2005, others will dream to be like him. There was nothing that Thompson could do to stop that. So, Thompson kept on writing and singing his song because when our dreams and loves are in vain, and sometimes all we can do is sing. Happy Birthday, Fear and Loathing. You look young for 40.


Olga Zhulina is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at Harvard University. She grew up in Las Vegas. More from this author →