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That Old Fear and Loathing

Fifty years after its publication, Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo masterpiece still invites haunting questions.

Hunter S. Thompson in his Woody Creek home near Aspen, Colorado in February 1997. (Helen Davis/The Denver Post via Wikimedia Commons)

This month marks fifty years since Rolling Stone published Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, and retrospectives on the book’s legacy have been mixed.

Thompson’s political foresight and satirical chops have inspired “Hunter, thou shouldst be living at this hour. America hath need of thee!” panegyrics, while Thompson’s refusal to share credit or profits with Oscar Zeta Acosta—the Chicano attorney and real-life inspiration for Fear and Loathing’s Dr. Gonzo—have inspired criticism of Thompson’s white privilege.

Though these two views appear opposed, they agree on something fundamental: Fear and Loathing’s worth is primarily political.

Reducing the novel to politics is not only a distortion of the book; it’s a missed opportunity to see why the book is still worth reading. Thompson, the good doctor of journalism, diagnoses America’s ailments throughout Fear and Loathing and concludes that, while the symptoms are political, the disease afflicting America’s heart is spiritual.

Thompson was working on a project he called The Death of the American Dream when, in the spring of 1971, he drove with Acosta from L.A. to Vegas twice, ostensibly to cover a motorcycle race for Sports Illustrated and a national conference on narcotics and dangerous drugs for Rolling Stone.

Thompson saw the trips to Vegas as more than a quick cash grab. First, he was writing an article about the death of Mexican-American journalist Reuben Salazar at the hands of the L.A. police, so he needed to get Acosta out of L.A. so the two could talk about the case in peace. Second, Thompson saw Vegas as a perfect place to meditate on the death of the 60s counterculture and what life in Nixon’s America was like.

Thompson originally planned to record each trip’s experiences in real time and then publish his notes without editing as a pure form of “gonzo journalism.” Instead, he turned his travelogue into a roman à clef, a volatile cocktail of his journalistic instincts, acerbic eye, and penchant for fictional hyperbole. Thompson became Raoul Duke, the novel’s narrator, and Acosta became Dr. Gonzo, his fellow traveler. This fictional veneer only intensifies the book’s strong cross-currents of political loathing and spiritual fear most evident when Duke discusses God.

The novel’s first part ends with Duke trying to escape an enormous unpaid hotel bill, Nevada’s draconian drug laws, and a California Highway Patrolman. In a fit of amphetamine psychosis, Duke begs God for clemency: “You’d better take care of me, Lord… because if you don’t you’re going to have me on your hands.” When the cop offers Duke mercy instead of judgment, Duke fails to take the hint and head back to L.A. Instead, he gets a phone call from Dr. Gonzo offering him another gig in Vegas and heads back into the belly of the beast.

In the novel’s second part, Duke denies God exists and identifies belief as the love generation’s crippling weakness.

What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped to create … a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody—or at least some force—is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel.

This is the same cruel and paradoxically benevolent bullshit that has kept the Catholic Church going for so many centuries. It is also the military ethic… a blind faith in some higher and wiser “authority.” The Pope, The General, The Prime Minister… all the way up to “God.”

Duke loathes the way the counterculture bought into the same spiritual assumptions held by its political adversaries. No wonder the movement was doomed. The hippies were still playing their game.

Yet, the same Duke—the one criticizing “permanent cripples” who believe in something more profound than politics—was himself crying out to God a few days earlier. When he was speeding through that Highway 61 tunnel, he certainly thought someone was tending the Light. Will the real Duke please stand up?

Duke is, and is not, a true believer. In that way, he’s a representative of the counterculture from which he tries to distance himself. Duke certainly believes in capital “E” evil as represented by Nixon and his cronies, and Duke says the mission of his generation carried with it “a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right.” God is both The Great Scorekeeper, the force who made the rules and keeps track of the game, and “The Man,” an authority figure as worthy of skepticism as Nixon. You might call on God in times of fear and loathing, but later, you’ll feel like a rube.

Ironically, this dalliance with belief is another connection that Thompson had with Acosta. Before becoming a bruising defense attorney, Acosta had undergone a fiery conversion to a Baptist sect and spent time as an evangelist in Panama, a self-styled “Mexican Billy Graham.” By the time he was running with Thompson, Acosta had transposed his religious zealotry into a political key.

Duke and Dr. Gonzo alternate between spiritual kinship and political tension throughout the novel’s “savage journey.” Duke is uninterested in covering a mere motorcycle race. He wants to cover “Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas.” Alternatively, Dr. Gonzo suggests, “Let’s forget that bullshit about the American Dream… The important thing is the Great Samoan Dream.” They can both agree they’re looking for something more than surface thrills.

So the pair search for the Dream at various locales. They investigate a gun club sponsoring a motorcycle race. They watch Debbie Reynolds cover “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” They spend a few ether-besotted hours in the Circus-Circus, a casino that represents “what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war.” They even track down a burned-out old nightspot called The Psychiatrist’s Club, known informally as The American Dream.

If Las Vegas offers an American Dream, it is decadent and depraved just like Richard Nixon, a man who Duke observes would have “made a perfect Mayor for this town.” As for the Samoan Dream, the closest the pair come is the hint of “a racial conflict” at the narcotics conference and a late-night taco stand that can’t even answer the question, “Do you guarantee that they are authentic Mexican tacos?” Both dreams are played for jokes.

The problem Thompson diagnoses is more significant than the failure to realize an authentic ethnic or national dream. It’s a problem with being human.

“He who makes of himself a beast gets rid of the pain of being a man,” says the book’s epigraph, a quotation from another distinguished doctor of journalism, Samuel Johnson. The excessive drugs that Duke and Acosta take testify less to hedonism than to pain, a suffering that is deeper than political unrest.

The novel’s tone is aptly elegiac. Thompson dedicated the book to Bob Dylan for “Mister Tambourine Man,” the song Thompson called “The Hippy National Anthem.” It is a profoundly sad song, articulating the wish to escape the “twisted reach of crazy sorrow” and the desire to “forget about today until tomorrow.” Dylan’s image of “memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves” underlies Fear and Loathing’s famous passage about what happened to the counterculture:

“We were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. …

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

It takes eyes attuned to something more than politics to see this vision.

Gonzo journalism appealed to Thompson because it offered a style equipped to reveal the twisted nature of reality. Kurt Vonnegut claimed that the New Journalists like Thompson practiced “the literary equivalent of Cubism.” By exposing the twisted nature of reality, they confronted readers with “luminous aspects of beloved old truths.”

These truths transcend mere politics. They are truths about what makes politics worth fighting over and why political victory alone will never be enough.

Jonathan Sircy is an associate professor of English at Southern Wesleyan University.

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