Our copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was lent to a former colleague back in 2011 – we never saw it again. This is, more likely, as they didn’t bother reading the book and forgot to give it back to Mr. Wapojif, rather than they enjoyed it so much they stole it. However, this is one steal worthy tome, a modern classic, and quite the notorious read due to writer Hunter S. Thompson’s candid, surreal depiction of drug use and excess.
The grandfather of Gonzo journalism (where a journalist, inadvertently, becomes a central part of the story he, or she, is covering) kicks things off with a drug-fueled frenzy and the story never lets up from there. Published in 1971, it was adapted from two trips he’d taken (as a journalist in the ’60s) to Las Vegas with his bizarre, capricious attorney friend Dr. Gonzo (real name Oscar Acosta, who disappeared in 1974 and is presumed dead). The result, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is Thompson’s most famous book, which is an often hilarious, disturbing, and bizarre look at the ’60s counterculture movement.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Raoul Duke, as Thompson stylised himself, had a certain penchant for drug use. He took a lot of them, even going as far to state he wouldn’t advocate them to anyone else, but they worked a treat for him during his life. You can see that from the very first line in the novel (although it is semi-autobiographical):
"We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like 'I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive.' And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about 100 miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: 'Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?'"
There’s more to the book than simply endless drug taking, however, as Thompson (who died in 2005) was very much the political animal. If anything, Fear and Loathing is a deconstruction of the American dream and the failure of the hippy movement in the 1960s. It’s certainly rather rebellious as a result, with a disillusioned Duke seemingly taking a lot of drugs to escape the disappointment of what failed to emerge in the ’60s.
Then there’s also the drug abuse. There’s no denying this is one bizarre, and often disturbing novel, but it’s also funny. Essentially about two bungling drug addicts moving from one caper to the next – an American version of Withnail and I, then, although this is far more hallucinatory. It’s often not clear what is and isn’t really happening (i.e. if they’re out of it on drugs or not), with the basic plot essentially involving Raoul Duke in Las Vegas to cover a Mint 400 motorbike event.
This is quickly forgotten about as Duke and his attorney friend enter a world of drug-fueled madness and paranoia, during which time Thompson ruminates (in what he dubbed his finest piece of writing) about how the ’60s saw many riding the crest of a wave, only to see this come crashing down. It’s an odd one, but it’s also a classic and you should add it to your bookshelf.
In 1998, Terry Gilliam took on the challenge of adapting an insane novel for the big screen. If any director was ever up to the task, it’s Gilliam; the former Monty Python star received mixed reviews for his efforts in the time, but looking back as impartially as possible, the result is a flawed, but highly enjoyable and amusing romp.
It starred Johnny Depp (complete with a shaved head to replicate Thompson’s male pattern balding) and Benicio del Toro (who gained a lot of weight for the role). The mixed reviews, however, soon arrived (famed American critic Roger Ebert handed it 1/4) and, watching it as a student regularly in 2004, you can see why – it’s bizarre, wonky, and often narratively confusing.
It’s also crammed full of amusing scenes and quotes, such as when the lads trip on ether and stagger into a casino. The film has its moments, but it’s not Gilliam’s finest moment (that being Brazil from 1985), but it’s worth it for Depp’s charismatic performance.