Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

by Hunter S. Thompson

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas CoverThis was actually my third time reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in its entirety. When I first made my way through it, I thought it was one of the funniest things I’d ever read, so it’s become one of those things I revisit from time to time, for a good laugh. Given the significant number of depressing works I’ve recently been sampling, it seemed as good a time as ever to pull it back out. This time around, however, it really put me in mind of Jack Kerouac––The Dharma Bums, specifically––and it really caused me to reflect longer on Thompson’s story. Of course, the comparison could stem mainly from the apparent influence of Beat literature, more Burroughs than Kerouac, on Thompson’s prose, but I think it had more to do with something deeper at the heart of the story.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a semi-autobiographical account of Thompson’s drug-fueled trip(s) to Las Vegas to cover a story about a motorcycle race and, later, police conference on narcotics. As the author’s stand-in, Raoul Duke, moves between projects and all manners of debauchery, his sole goal remains the search for the American Dream. Initially, Fear and Loathing’s wild excess felt like a strong contrast to The Dharma Bums’s quiet simplicity, but it seems to be much more complex than that. Where Kerouac found himself found himself at a crossroads, where some had optimism that the growing countercultural movement had some chance of success, Thompson found himself sitting in the wasteland that remained after the movement died. (The specific point and causes of death are even briefly, but explicitly, explained by Thompson within his story.) Thompson thusly thrust himself within the jumbled mess that remained, trying to make some sense of an absurd landscape that surrounded the uncomprehending mainstream society. And I believe this lends itself to some explanation toward the ambiguity of the American Dream the author sought throughout. Was it right in front of Thompson the entire time, the easy access to unbridled excess that then-current day America afforded, or was he searching that same, simple Truth that Kerouac did so many years before, only to be met with disappointment at the end of it all? Whatever you believe it could be, the one thing Thompson clearly exposes is the ugliness of the America he found himself within, and Las Vegas seems like a fitting setting for what he saw, the outward gaudiness that distracts mainstream society from its grotesque and corrupt underbelly.

But keep in mind that, while it can get pretty heavy at times––and there’s one passage in particular that is the worst offender for this, where Thompson easily portrays the harm that comes of this hedonism––Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is actually quite funny, so we never really get too bogged down with any significant despair. And I take great comfort knowing that Thompson’s famous story has more to offer than laughs.