‘I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.’ Hunter S Thompson.
Last week, in preparation for my new MA in Creative Nonfiction, I started to read some of the classic texts that blur the lines between fact and fiction starting of with Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing.
Originally, published in Rolling Stone, it is a story without a clear plot. Thompson’s character Raoul Duke is sent to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race, accompanied by his attorney Dr Gonzo. This is, however, very much a loose plot with the majority of the story focusing more on characters’ use of recreational drugs from Amyl, ether and mescaline to name a few. Duke and Gonzo’s approach to recreational drugs is far from recreational as they seemingly apply a strong work ethic to achieving and maintaining various highs and lows. Throughout the book, it is purposely difficult to ascertain what is real and what is fictional as we experience the paranoia and paroxysms of Duke and Dr Gonzo as they evade the authorities and blend into Las Vegas society (‘In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught’) all while trying to find the American Dream — a dream that increasingly turns into a nightmarish fever.
Ralph Steadman illustrates Fear and Loathing
The main characters are compelling, and remarkably well written, but they are far from likeable which is clearly the point of Thompson’s narrative. These two characters destroy, challenge, belittle and question the ugly side of the American Dream whilst also seemingly embodying the ugly by-products of that very dream themselves, taking advantage of anyone they come across, including a very young, naive artist. There is, despite the thorough unlikability of the characters, perhaps begrudging respect for their talents which are all too elusive for most sober-minded people (‘I went back… where I began to drink heavily, think heavily, and make many heavy notes…’) and some admiration for Duke’s ability to see through the murky mirage of society in Vegas. (Duke notes at one point that Vegas was not a town to do psychedelic drugs in because the ‘[r]eality itself is too twisted’.)
There are some genuinely hilarious bits as well as the enthralling descents into madness. Duke is very aware of his risky lifestyle on the edge, living with the prospect of being gutted by a friend too far gone to the constant strain the drugs place on his heart, which manifests most obviously in prodigious perspiration: ‘My clothes are soaking wet from dawn to dusk. This worried me at first, but when I went to a doctor and described my normal intake of booze, drugs and poison he told me to come back when the sweating stopped.’
Fear and Loathing’s legacy is far-reaching. Although this was not the first case of Gonzo Journalism (nor is it a successful case of gonzo journalism by Thompson’s own admission), it is a key moment in American Literature and one that has had a wide impact on American culture more broadly. It hard, for example, not to see this influence even in things such as Bojack Horseman on a deeper level than just drug use (‘Old elephants limp off to the hills to die; old Americans go out to the highway and drive themselves to death with huge cars’).