Hunter S. Thompson’s extravaganza on the virtues of gonzo journalism in the hippie drug era remains a cornerstone of both enjoyable fiction and pseudo-realistic nonfiction. It’s quite hard to say what is real and what is not in “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream,” which was one of Thompson’s later novels, though not at all less popular.
The story concerns the drug-crazed adventures of gonzo journalist Raoul Duke and his berserked friend and attorney Dr. Gonzo, a fictionalized pair likened to the real life Hunter S. Thompson and his attorney and Chicano activist Oscar Zeta Acosta. The friends journey to Las Vegas to take part in a race known as the Mint 500, an event Duke is assigned to cover by his tyrannical editors in New York.
Throughout the book, the protagonists get consistently high off of a dizzying array of “blotters, downers, criers, laughers” and other various drug paraphernalia while ingesting copious (and seemingly limitless amounts) of alcohol. At times, it becomes difficult to render lucid reality from cocaine-addled illusion, and the narratives given by the sarcastic and darkly humourous Raoul Duke induce a full range of emotions that cover the broad spectrum of fear, wonderment, paranoia, and hilarity.
This is the drug era, a time of hippies, Hell’s Angels, rock and roll, and Nixon toying with big government as men died in droves in Vietnam. The war looms over the setting of the book as this retro old-style Las Vegas plays home to the machinations of a wild-eyed American from Los Angeles, and his high-powered samoan comrade. The book is gorgeously replete with descriptions of the sights, sounds, smells and emotions that run through the fleshy and smoke-streaked undercurrent of the strip. The drugs, after a time, serve a sort of plot device to advance the story- creating hilarious situations and unfortunate events.
The story’s plot inevitably becomes twisted and frayed with the drug fueled misadventures of the two as they stumble across the Las Vegas strip in search of a nonexistent dream. “The American Dream” is a concept that permeates the novel. Raoul Duke himself claims to be searching for it, and some people claim to have found it. Duke’s fruitless search throughout the novel leads him into rare moments of lucidity where he speaks of the times as if in anachronistic retrospect, remarking on “the good old days” and the feeling of an age now gone.
Thompson’s writing leaves little to the imagination- Duke’s addled fantasies are described in painful detail as the world blends and bleeds in reality ripping moments of pure insanity. The novel is a tribute to not only drugs, but to an entire generation that lived in the golden age of them. The fear and the loathing that suffuses the air in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” serves to only spicen the mood: Thompson’s prose beautifully creates a thoughtful rendition of the past in a wild and feral way.
There are times throughout the novel when we can barely understand the action, infused with raw ether, and other times when Thompson waxes an almost poetic detail on the America that was “then”. As a whole, “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas” is both a drug filled romp across Las Vegas and beyond as much as it is a meditation on an era now gone. The era that Thompson writes of is dead and buried, though through a haze of mescaline and ether, it is sorely missed.