Monday 23 July 2012

REVIEW: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson (4*)

(Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005)

I was a little intimidated at the thought of starting this book, and yet again I was overjoyed to find that I am, in fact, a grown up after all and can handle a cult classic with the best of 'em.  I don't know why it's such a surprise really, because so often when I've been daunted by a book I've found my fears to be completely unfounded.

Anyway.  This book is mad.  Funny, chaotic and mad.  I can see why it made such a good film, and why Jack Sparrow Johnny Depp fit the lead role so perfectly.  Not that I've seen the film, but I've ordered a copy and from the trailer it looks pretty close to the original, certainly in spirit!  Basically, Fear and Loathing is a semi-journalistic, semi-fictional, semi-situations-have-been-altered-for-artistic-reasons journey through the heart of early-seventies Las Vegas, set against the shifting drug culture and the dissipation of the hippie idealism of the sixties.

This is a time when the American Dream is falling apart.  When money talks, the power of the masses is seeping away, 'consciousness expanding' drugs are disappearing from fashionable circles, and flower power is transforming into something darker, dirtier and a whole lot more seedy.  At the heart of the book, Raoul Duke (Thompson's persona), his attorney and a very nice Red Shark convertible loaded with a medley of dangerous substances coast through conventions and rallies, bars and casinos, seeking the remnants of the American Dream and getting amazingly loaded along the way.  Part 1 is about their 'coverage' (I use the term loosely) of the Mint 400 race in the Nevada desert, and Part 2 documents their return to Las Vegas to gatecrash the National District Attorneys' Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (there might be samples!).

It's always difficult to describe and review such a crazy book, so instead I'll just say that it's pretty damn brilliant.  It made me chortle aloud plenty of times, yet also had some quite poignant and downright repulsive moments that brought home the futility of their search for meaning, and the decidedly less-than-glamorous world a junkie inhabits.  Mostly though, it was the best kind of farcical comedy - funny, ridiculous, outrageous, gutsy and I never quite knew what was going to happen next!

P.S. My Harper Perennial copy also has a handy section at the back with a short biography of Hunter Thompson, a little about the book and film, and some notes on Gonzo journalism.  Very helpful!  :)

Notable Quotables:
  • "Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only real cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas."
  • "History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of "history" it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time - and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened."
  • "It was treacherous, stupid and demented in every way - but there was no avoiding the stench of twisted humor that hovered around the idea of a gonzo journalist in the grip of a potentially terminal drug episode being invited to cover the National District Attorneys' Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs."

Source: I bought this book during a flying visit to Waterstones in Chesterfield.