23. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson (1971) 204 p.
I really loved this, which I wasn’t expecting too. I haven’t seen the movie, and all I knew about the book was that it was a semi-autobiography detailing the drug-addled adventures of an acid-soaked writer during one week in Vegas. I was dubious as to how entertaining that might be. I needn’t have worried.
I’m not sure how closely the story correlates to real life, but essentially, Thompson (as his alter ego Raoul Duke) is sent to Las Vegas to cover a racing tournament, and brings along his gigantic Samoan attorney who is as much of an irredeemable basehead as he is. The duo spend a week roaring around Vegas in a red convertible, the trunk containing enough drugs to “kill an entire platoon of United States Marines,” and essentially bare their asses at every law they find. They trash hotel rooms, terrify hitchhikers, and infiltrate a police convention on drug crimes, all while speeding off their heads and hallucinating about “huge pterodactyls lumbering around the corridors in pools of fresh blood” or “two women fucking a polar bear.” The sense of an alternately fascinating and horrifying seven day drug trip is perfectly supplemented by Ralph Steadman’s grotesque, blotchy illustrations, scattered throughout the book (my only complaint is that the scenes they depict usually occurred about twelve pages ago).
You’d imagine that two hundred pages of acid trips would grow old fast, but Thompson’s skill as a writer is such that it maintains its lustre all the way through. Raoul Duke is one of those loveable characters who lives purely on fanatical, reckless impulse, with no consequences to either his freedom or health. Any real person who took the amount of drugs Raoul and his attorney do would be dead in seconds and probably also find themselves immortalised as an oddity in a journal of medicine. Likewise, a brush with the law and twenty years in prison would also be inevitable; unlike the health consequences, however, Thompson sweats over this with constant paranoia. Fortunately for the reader, he has a great sense of humour about it all, first seen when they pick up a hitchiker in the opening chapter:
How long can we maintain? I wondered. How long before one of us starts raving and jabbering at this boy? What will he think then? This same lonely desert was the last known home of the Manson family. Will he make that grim connection when my attorney starts screaming about bats and huge manta rays coming down on the car? If so – well, we’ll just have to cut his head off and bury him somewhere. Because it goes without saying that we can’t turn him loose. he’ll report us at once to some kind of outback law enforcement agency, and they’ll run us down like dogs.
Jesus! Did I say that? Or just think it? Was I talking? Did they hear me? I glanced over at my attorney, but he seemed oblivious – watching the road, driving our Great Red Shark along at a hundred and ten or so. There was no sound from the back seat.
Maybe I’d better have a chat with this boy, I thought. Perhaps if I explain things, he’ll rest easy.
Of course. I leaned around in the seat and gave him a fine big smile… admiring the shape of his skull.
My other favourite quote was on the topic of highway police:
No cop was ever born who isn’t a sucker for a finely-executed high-speed Controlled Drift all the way around one of those cloverleaf freeway interchanges.
The place of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a watershed moment in twentieth century culture was deservedly won. There’s a whole slew of themes and messages in this book, which Thompson described as a “vile epitaph for the drug culture of the sixties,” but I was enjoying it too much to bother thinking about them. Fundamentally, it’s just an exhilerating, high-octane journey through the neon lights, vomit-streaked hotel rooms and warped culture of 1971 Las Vegas. A hell of a toboggan ride!