By Jonathan Sircy
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
Via:: American Conservative
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