Published in 1972, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, is the best known work of Hunter S. Thompson and the novel that launched Gonzo journalism into the public consciousness. A mix of reality and fantasy, the story follows Raoul Duke (stand in for Thompson) and his Samoan lawyer, Dr. Gonzo (stand in for Oscar Acosta), as they make a couple of trips to Las Vegas in search of the American Dream. Stoned, delirious, and unpredictable throughout, Duke is sent out to report on the Mint 400 (a motorcycle race across the desert) but finds himself falling into an episodic series of surreal adventures seemingly without purpose.

In Fear and Loathing, the euphoric 1960s have passed and drug culture is becoming something much darker: there are tales of violence, of men pulling out their own eyeballs during states of intoxication. It is hard to describe Duke’s experience of drugs as any time resulting in a ‘high’, rather he slips from anxiety-laden fantasy to painful semi-sobriety, loitering somewhere in between for the most part. With a stash of drugs that include marijuana, mescaline, all kinds of pills, cocaine, opiates, LSD, ether, and adrenochrome, none of which seem to offer a good-time, you have to wonder what the point of it all is. But perhaps that is simple it: the ruination of the once optimistic drug culture. As Duke says in the narrative, “It is worth noting, historically, that downers came in with Nixon.”

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson book cover
This line of drugs as a palliative rather than a euphoric past time follows from the book’s epigraph, which is a quotation from Samuel Johnson: "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man," and suggests that Fear and Loathing may describe the lengths to which men will go to in order to escape reality, in this case through a disgust at the America they find themselves in and a self-loathing for their own state of being. Yet this isn’t particularly borne out by the story. There may be a more subtle social commentary secreted somewhere within the drug-addled narrative as Duke and Gonzo react violently against Las Vegas and the wider world but the overall impression Fear and Loathing gives is of a novel depicting aimless self-annihilation and populated by equally aimless morons roaming about and bothering ‘the Man’, or in this case, regular people who happen to be in the way. Even to call this way of existing nihilism would be generous and there is a reckless, freeing chaos to Duke’s stories of his time in Las Vegas that eschews all rationalisation. Thompson would later claim that even he could not remember which incidents in the book were invention and which were fact, and it seems immaterial. Truth or fantasy, little in the novel is cogent or intended to stick. The references to the American Dream are a long way from engaging with Horatio Alger’s vision and when Duke and the Samoan eventual discover their very literal American Dream, the point to which strangers have directed them on their travels, it turns out that the American Dream was an old psychiatrist’s club, now burned down. Fitting if heavy-handed symbolism.

It would be easy to dismiss a book about the aimless, drug-fueled adventures of two professionals-cum-drifters who have no story of consequence to tell, and yet – as with any good trip – the journey is the thing. Thompson creates a series of absurd situations for his characters to stumble through – not least the vignette when they attend the National Conference of District Attorney’s seminar on drugs and narcotics, only to learn that the police haven’t got a clue – and many of these are ripe comic material. The humour is good although it is of a certain kind (try this line on for size: “at one point I tried to drive the Great Red Shark into the laundry room of the Landmark Hotel - but the door was too narrow, and the people inside seemed dangerously excited”). If you don’t find Seth Rogen pulling on weed and mumbling his way through ninety minutes of light ‘comedy’, you might find the drug-saturated episodes in Fear and Loathing a little underwhelming. There are some really funny lines, however.

This is probably where I break ranks and admit that, short though the novel is and a handful of laughs though there were, little made up for the complete lack of coherence in the plot (or total lack of plot, if you prefer) and the meandering pointlessness of it all. Of course, this is very much the point but it is not something I particularly enjoy unless it is strung together by particularly exciting prose or a stronger dose of genuinely hilarious anecdotes. Sadly, Thompson’s writing is largely proficient, occasionally stretching to an excellent phrase or passage, but it wasn’t enough to save the book for me. Some of the descriptions had a hint of Martin Amis at his best, and some of the dialogue reminded me a little of Pulp Fiction era Tarantino, but these comparisons can be made on isolated passages only.

Heralded as being at the forefront of Gonzo journalism, Thompson was certainly innovative in placing himself as the journalist within the story. The idea that the line between fiction and non-fiction is arbitrary and the truth can best be got at by blending the two is appealing. Yet, Fear and Loathing doesn’t have the depth or humanity of good human-focused journalism so though the style may be technically innovative it does not make for a particularly satisfying read. The anecdotes almost certainly fared better in their original form as articles and I’m sure could have expressed everything they have to offer within five thousand words at an absolute maximum. When it was first published, the book received a fairly negative response with critics reacting against either its unconventional style or its unconventional morals. It didn’t take long for the swell of opinion to change and maybe my own will turn, but I cannot help but identify more with those early reviews that saw little of merit in the book. It reminds me of some of Bret Easton-Ellis’s early work but with all semblance of structure removed, leaving it less coherent than a trip and certainly less enjoyable.

So I am left a little baffled by the book’s popularity. Certainly I can see that it is the sort of work that captures an audience who find it edgy or experimental. I also realise that it represents a seminal moment in Gonzo journalism and has merit on that account. But if this is Gonzo journalism, I think I can do without it, thank you (I realise, of course, the form has greater potential than is shown here). And I can reel off any number of books that manage to be ‘edgy’ (horrible term though that is) without forgoing all merited conventions of literature. Trying to evoke the emptiness of life for many young people who seek sensation without substance (yes, I see what I did there) in a world that appears devoid of meaning is hard to do in literature – the form doesn’t lend itself to page after page of vacuousness – and Thompson doesn’t have an answer to this. Still enjoyed by many, but for me Fear and Loathing is a near-complete miss in book form.