Thursday, October 09, 2008

Review of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

Prior to cracking Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I'd never read Hunter S. Thompson, which no doubt gets me behind on the mythology. What can I say? In some ways I've lived a sheltered life. But don't think of me as an ignorant naif, instead think of me as that great legal fantasy of an impartial juror, a man who, but for the surprising exception of the famous case at hand, is relatively well-informed. Well, another disclosure: maybe not that well-informed. But you know what I mean.

Fear and Loathing is a binge through sin city, following Thompson (as Raoul Duke) as he, with his attorney (one Dr. Gonzo) in tow, ostensibly reports on the fabulous Mint 400 motorcycle race and a DA's conference on the threat of illegal drugs. Pursuits, as the subtitle goes, of the American dream? Well maybe, but more on that in a moment or two. First, an objective reviewer such as myself must address the drug theme, which is what inflates maybe a dozen pages of journalism and commentary to something novel length. Now, I don't have much of a purchase point with such high-level debauchery--at no moment do Duke and Gonzo escape the influence of substances swallowed or inhaled, and maintaining that state requires some industry on both their parts--but I've spent enough irresponsible time with (mostly) legal drugs to appreciate the motif. It's not quite a comedy, but it's got some good comic timing, centered about the recklessness and the shrewd insanity of a drunk. I got some quality laughs out of the characters' carefully debated illogic, and the shoestring confidence games they had to wield to get out of those same scrapes they got themselves into in the first place. The alarming acid hallucinations fit in well enough as metaphor, or as grounding, but I'm still square enough to have been horrified at the random experimentation, ingestion of industrial chemicals, and some of the physical effects of their extreme dilettantism.

That comic voice does have a familiar tone, and I'm not sure if it's borrowed from film, or from a thousand next-day accounts of foolish escapades (or, for that matter, from however many of Thompson's intellectual heirs). He conducts that timeless brilliance of "acting nonchalant" as the world goes to hell around you like a maestro, and he's mastered the classic art of puncturing assumed dignity with irreverence. He sets a considered pause here to frame a gag, he's got the contrasts of outward calm against the thoroughly absurd or of drug-addled mania over the bland and mundane. The language on the whole is witty and apposite, and it utilized mock-seriousness very well. Our heroes sincerely throw around words like "vile," "swine," and "maniac," which are funny on their own, and on a higher level, the sober truths (and ironies) of them are carefully considered, even as they pertain to their own unsober selves. (Their petty criminalities against The Man are funny by similar measures, especially in that town, but one or two innocents may have been abused. This was much less so.)

But Fear and Loathing is not just for the jokes, and there are sober truths behind it, that need to lie behind to keep the book from achieving anything more than a blivot of props and gimmicks. I would have preferred a firmer bedrock of substance: there were ten pages of hijinks for every three-paragraph insight. I'll admit there are some fine juxtaposition and contrasts, but maybe there's too many left to the reader to decipher. Vegas is portrayed as your standard-issue den of iniquity, but the point's made that it's an ugly conservative version of sin, a real cop's-night-out sort of lawlessness: implicitly violent, outright objectifying, and personally destructive in an orderly and artificial sort of way, from which the real (and presumably less harmful) weirdos are exiled. You might call it an affirmation of genuine feakiness, although I didn't come out approving of Gonzo and Duke's lifestyle either, and these two carefully refute the drug-fueled idealism of the previous decade's youth movements as well. "The American dream," when they find it, is burnt out and irrelevant to any personal quest either Horatio Alger or Timothy Leary may have proposed, just a dangerous journey with not much at the end of it. You might say it takes lunacy to show the lunacy.

As a final note, I found the lamented demise of 60s idealism a bit tired in 2008--the boomers have reinvented their generation half a dozen times by now--but I expect it was potent in 1971. I have no reason to believe, however, that Thompson himself ever gave up his integrity. Before I finished writing this, I came across his 1994 eulogy of Nixon, now the second piece of his I've read, and I recommend it. It's brilliant without all the drug gimmicks.


Archaeopteryx said...

I have to admit that I haven't read Fear and Loathing either. I have an excuse, though--I'm an idiot. But I'll read it now.

Especially after reading that eulogy. It reminds of two things. First it brings back my disgust and horror at watching the spectacle that was Nixon's funeral. I remember Dole crying at the end of his speech, and the gorge rising in my throat. I've said it before: The fact that Richard Nixon once existed gives one pause before pronouncing Dubya the worst president in the history of the Republic. Dole's talk erased any of the lingering sympathy I had for the man, another supposed "straight-talker." The second thing that eulogy brings back is the sight of the toad-like ancient war criminal Kissinger sitting with Sarah Palin, she of the personality and intelligence of an assassin bug. Seeing the two of them together, I could almost hear the appreciative grunts and snorts that Kissinger the Hutt would have emitted on gazing upon Palin's plasticized Barbie-doll countenance.

So, thanks for the review, awesomely written as usual, but I'm not sure I appreciate the mental images you've indirectly caused to come back.

Keifus said...

Thanks, Arch. Nixon, thankfully enough, was mostly before my time, but the old bastard certainly left a mark. (And somehow Kissinger can never disappear--I agree that Sarah Palin name-dropping the guy was squirm-inducing on any number of levels.)

I'm not sure I got Fear and Loathing right. I didn't think the subjective quasi-journalism was the big thing about it, which I think is the usual accepted take-home message. There was a movie made from this one as well. Hard to preserve the authorial voice, I'd think, but a lot of his devices probably translated pretty well.


twiffer said...

i'll say one thing: acid certainly alters your perspective on what we take for granted in life and society. particularly when you spend a good hour and a half convinced that pear trees secretly control the world (not as crazy as it sounds, if you consider how plant evolution influences animal evolution).

i've been to vegas once and that was enough. it's a surreal enough place on its own merits: staying drunk the whole time is a necessary defense mechanism. viewing that sort of constant, base debauchery askew through the lens of LSD...i'm not sure i'd make it back from a trip like that. not wholly, at least. it speaks to a strength of character and inherent faith that, deep down, people are good, to take such a trip and not wind up either a hermit or a raving lunatic.

granted, i haven't read the book either. not wholly (a few chapters here and there). been over a decade since i've ingested any hallucenogenic substance, yet the potency of the experience is still easy to recall. i'd not want to turn that altered mind to vegas, that much i know.

Keifus said...

viewing that sort of constant, base debauchery askew through the lens of LSD...i'm not sure i'd make it back from a trip like that. not wholly, at least.

I was wondering if this sort of insight was necessary to really getting what HST was doing there, and it looks like that's a "yes." I sometimes wonder if I've missed out with that sort of thing.

twiffer said...

depends on how much you enjoy (temporarily) fiddling with your brain chemistry. i do wholly recommend mushrooms; LSD, well, that's different. i'll not glamourize it, though i did enjoy the experience (usually). but, well, it is an extraordinarily potent hallucinogen. take a lot out of you. not to mention that, since it is altering your perspective of everything, your mood and mental state have an impact. frankly, it can be terrifying, if you let it. for those inclined to darker thoughts, it could be very bad indeed. or positive. also depends on who you are with. going solo is never a sensible idea. i've been captivated by a tiny paint chip for hours. i've stood in a field and seen myself standing on a cliff's edge, the sky open before me, below me, and filled with bright clouds (and bubbles). i've been convinced aliens were invading the planet. i've been terrified of ducks. are these good thing? not sure, really. experiences, yes. some much better than others. all rather weird. but, so far as musing on the artifice of society and its symbols, on the weird things we do, on what truly motivates don't need much beyond an analytical mind for that.

Keifus said...

Interesting. I can only imagine I'd find it terrifying: sober musing on the artifice of society sends me for enough of a loop, or did when I was younger. One reason I think about that sort of thing these days and didn't so much then, is that I find a lot of things more ridiculous and frustrating than scary now.

Keifus said...

P.S.: I hope you don't mind that I just quoted your first comment when I repackaged this bit for BTC News...

(I can delete it if it feels inappropriate.)