Reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas


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HUNTER S Thompson is not a good influence. And it’s probably not just the conservative, church-going, dynastically wealthy and/or red-neck sporting parents you’ve been rebelling against your whole life who would agree. I know I would. During an interview I was lucky to get for a journalism graduate program, I responded to this question from a five person pressure cooker panel of distinguished News Limited employees: “Who is your favourite journalist?” with: “Hunter S Thompson”. Needless to say, I didn’t get the (particular) job. There’s a quote by someone I can’t remember, and whom Google refused to go off and find, that questions how any parent could hope to ward their children from illicit narcotics when they had done so much for Thompson. Indeed. But in his defence the man himself always hated “to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone”, but they had always worked for him. And, often, he worked for them. Even from beyond the grave, whether he likes it or not, he’s one of those people who loom large over freak, weirdo and junkie culture.

Just as Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls was his own and best known dry yet detailed piece of pre-Gonzo journalism, fashioned from his experiences during the Spanish Civil War; Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was his Pearl Harbour-style raid on the conservatism that still clung to the post-Beat Generation United States of America. If you believe the conspiracy theorists, it also ended about as well as things did for the Japanese with his “suicide” last decade. The book was also an attack on the hypocrisy, debauchery and sheer excess, left and right, of the vaunted American Dream, delivered through a very ironically extreme pursuit of it. Now, besides hazy recollections of a couple of Nimbin Mardi Gras, greening out on hash biscuits in a garden outside Southport’s The Del Hotel and one maddening night in a south-east-Asian nightclub, I can’t speak much for drugs. But HST sure did. As far as illegal hallucinogenics in literature are concerned, only Trainspotting could hope to come a distant second to Fear and Loathing. And the former didn’t run in as many events, by which I mean types of drugs.

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I think I watched the movie first, and it’s one of only a handful of films that adequately and, in this case, fearlessly portrays a book. Though I must admit I don’t think I’ve watched it cold-sober, and in fact passed out the first four or five times before reaching its end. And I certainly can’t read while drunk. You sort of have to close one eye, and squint, but, well, it’s really easier just to pass out. By way of comparison, watch Where the Buffalo Roam; another HST adaptation. I swear it caused me to fall out of comedic love with Bill Murray. Anyway, to bring in Hemingway again: if Bell Tolls was a piece of high quality meat, with fresh bread, vegetables and a little cheese on the reading nutrition pyramid, Thompson’s Fear and Loathing was the little known and seldom seen psychedelic drug section lacing the pyramid’s fringe. It’s a backhanded compliment to Vegas’ sleazy resilience that while consuming the book or film you actually believe that, among many others, the following things are not only possible but tolerated:

1. You can get away with asking a barmaid – “Do they pay you to screw that bear?”;
2. You can entrap in your hotel room a barely and possibly not legal female art student who for some reason paints little else but portraits of Barbara Streisand;
3. You can utterly devastate two hotel rooms in a drug-fuelled psychosis, then attend a police narcotics convention, and survive;
4. It’s perfectly reasonable to turn a magazine assignment to cover a Vegas motorcycle race into an apparently completely pointless yet ultimately genius rambling about getting up to almost every type of no good possible.

Perhaps it was just the early ‘70s but, I tell ya, more than 40 years later: Vegas really is like that. It’s a place where, for a price, you can buy, eat, drink, do, screw, shoot and gamble anything; it’s a place where you’ll meet middle aged men who visit church every morning and spend each day at a poker table; and it is without a doubt America’s, if not the planet’s, fat, ignorant and greedy core. I consider every book I’ve ever read to have changed my life somewhat. Reading a book is like stopping during a journey or meeting someone new. And it’s often a real leap of faith. Or a learning curve. Fear and Loathing in particular, and Thompson in general, taught me that a certain amount of stubbornness, free-spiritedness, contempt for authority and appreciation of irony can assist with every part of life. And as far as I can recall, he never indulged in idolatry of those, such as Hemingway, who came before him. Which taught me not to idolise or emulate those I admire, but instead to at least be inspired by them and to at most seek to surpass their achievements. I mean, to break my own rule and borrow one of HST’s regular blasphemes: sweet Jesus! Anyone who actually attempts to recreate the journey documented in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is either suicidal or insane. Not even Dr Gonzo’s ghost would endorse such an endeavour. And The Hangover guys don’t count, because they’re just alcoholics. Shit, there was more justifiable fear and loathing in Honey I Blew Up the Kid.

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