Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream

by Hunter S. Thompson
(1971)
   A significant portion of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is set on the road, but the particular version of self-discovery that hunger s. thompson gives the reader is vastly different than the version jack kerouac offers in his own on tHe road. The notion of finding the American Dream is central to both works, and both works also offer radically nontraditional interpretations of what exactly the American Dream consists. But while Kerouac’s vision calls for a reconsideration of values and a reinvigoration of spirit, Thompson’s vision of the American Dream is one that embraces the absurdity, alienation, and despair of modern culture and revels in it. Fear and Loathing argues for a form of salvation and individualism that is found not through ascetic denial and avoidance of the corruption and temptations of modern society but through ecstatic submersion in them. Thompson’s book is extremely literal in its interpretation of the American Dream. It does not pursue the idealistic rhetoric of what the American Dream is supposed to be, but rather it explores the real American obsessions with violence, drugs, sex, and commercialism. In Thompson’s version of the American Dream, the id reigns supreme. To be realized most fully, the individual must take self-indulgent egoism to its furthest limits.
   Fear and Loathing opens, with a nod to the ancient epic tradition of beginning in medias res (in the middle of things), with Raoul Duke—Thompson’s pseudonym throughout the book—and his attorney (based on oscar zeta acosta) on the road to Las Vegas in a red convertible Cadillac in the midst of a massive drug binge. The epic conventions continue with a description of the contents of their luggage—a mind-boggling collection of drugs. Also, as in all epics, Fear and Loathing features a quest of discovery to the underworld, albeit a metaphorical one. Through the course of their experiences, Duke and his attorney will delve into the underworld of American culture to seek its very essence. The difference in Fear and Loathing, however, is that the underworld and the surface of American culture are one and the same. The truth is readily available for anyone with the intestinal fortitude to discover it. As Duke himself explains, “But our trip was different. It was a classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in the national character. It was a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country—but only for those with true grit. And we were chock full of that.” This speech is delivered, while under the influence of many powerful drugs, to a hitchhiker who recoils in abject terror and eventually makes his escape from the Cadillac. In an ironic reversal of what the usual interpretation of “right, true, and decent” might be, Duke and his attorney indulge almost exclusively in what would usually be seen as deviant behavior. Thompson’s point throughout Fear and Loathing is that this so-called deviant behavior is precisely what is at the heart of American character, and anyone who does not recognize it is not living authentically. The actual plot of Fear and Loathing involves very little actually happening, at least not in the traditional sense. Ostensibly, the book is centered around Duke’s assignment of reporting on a desert race called the Mint 400. After this event is “covered,” a new assignment—reporting on the National District Attorneys’ Convention on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs—occupies the second half of the book. Duke’s assignments, however, provide no more than a pretense for being in Las Vegas and recklessly indulging in a random series of drug-fueled adventures and misadventures that more appropriately capture the version of the American Dream that Thompson has in mind. Thus, instead of events that contribute to a typical literary structure of conflict and resolution, Duke and his attorney cruise the boulevards of Las Vegas; wander through casinos; check into, inhabit, and destroy hotel rooms; watch television; rent cars; leave the city; and return, and, above all, consume massive amounts of mind-altering drugs. Fear and Loathing is a chronicle of these “adventures,” the people whom they encounter along the way, and Duke’s commentary on how their experiences reveal our true national character. Invariably, their actions always amount to some sort of legal transgression or challenge to the establishment. Thus, the one motive that actually impels Duke and his attorney from place to place is the evasion of any authorities who might discover and bring to a firm halt their activities.
   Drugs of all sorts play a primary role in Fear and Loathing, and for Duke and his attorney, act as a kind of perpetual conduit for their quest of knowledge. For Thompson, drug use in the 1970s is markedly different from the 1960s, and this difference becomes one of the principle themes of the book. In the 1960s, such avant-garde figures as timothy leary, allen ginsberg, and ken kesey advocated consciousness expansion, whether through mind-expanding drugs or political activism or paying attention to the kinds of writing that would come to be referred to as Beat literature. But Thompson views 1960s idealism as having no place in the realities of the 1970s. Ginsberg and the other Beats failed in their attempts to seek and foster a better, different reality. A classic example is Ginsberg’s and Kesey’s involvement with motorcycle gangs, chronicled in Thompson’s earlier book titled Hell’s anGels: a stranGe and terriBle saGa. Rather than the utopian social integration of mutual understanding sought by Ginsberg, the ideological differences of the disparate groups resulted in the Angels attacking the ranks of an antiwar protest. Rather than utopia building, Thompson argues that “we are all wired into a survival trip now.” He blames Leary and the like of “crash[ing] 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. . . . All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit.” With the illusions of the 1960s shattered, the 1970s represent a coming to terms with our true identity and as a culture—one that has already achieved its final version of the American Dream. It may be a savage dream, but for Thompson, it is far better to recognize and admit to ourselves the true nature of our dreams than to live according to false ones.
 Bibliography
■ Carroll, E. Jean. Hunter: The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson. New York: Dutton, 1993.
■ McKeen, William. Hunter S. Thompson. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
■ Perry, Paul. Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson. New York: Thunder’s Mouth, 1992.
■ Thompson, Hunter S. The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967 (The Fear and Loathing Letter, Volume One). Edited by Douglas Brinkley. New York: Ballantine Books, 1998.
■ Whitmer, Peter O. When the Going Gets Weird: The Twisted Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson. New York: Hyperion, 1993.
   Luther Riedel

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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