Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson

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The Great Read Shark: Fear and Loathing at 40

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Forty years ago today, on March 21, 1971, Hunter S. Thompson and a Chicano activist attorney named Oscar Zeta Acosta drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to talk over an article Thompson was writing about the barrios of East L.A. When the account of their journey appeared in Rolling Stone in November of that year, Thompson and Acosta had morphed into Raoul Duke and his 300-pound Samoan attorney and the trunk of their car, the Great Red Shark, had become a rolling drug dispensary:

We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers…and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.

I can still remember sitting in the basement of my parents’ house in Northern California, practically whizzing myself with delight at that dizzying list of pharmaceuticals. I was fourteen and I’d read Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace and all the other books about and for nice, well-heeled boys whose lives have gone a little off the rails, but Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was different. It wasn’t just the mind-blowing drug use or the lusty middle finger Thompson seemed to be giving straight America; no, what was so startling, so riveting to my fourteen-year-old’s mind was how sincere the whole thing seemed. Raoul Duke is a foul-mouthed, gun-toting drug addict with a mean streak, and yet, as he explains to a terrified hitchhiker in the opening scene, he and his 300-pound Samoan attorney are driving to Las Vegas in search of the American Dream. “This is important, goddamnit!” Duke snarls at the poor hitchhiker. “This is a true story!” And sitting all alone in my parents’ basement, still high from the bong hits I’d blown out the window, I believed him.

That was then. In the forty years since Thompson took that fateful trip into gonzo history, he has gone from arguably the most dangerous man in American journalism, to a cartoon character in Doonesbury, to a drug-fuddled has-been, to a suicide, and yet the work remains. Four decades on, does the Fear and Loathing still hold up?

Hunter Stockton Thompson, future Doctor of Gonzo Journalism, was born in 1937 in Louisville, Kentucky, the first son of an insurance salesman and homemaker. Young Hunter was a handful pretty much from birth, according to William McKeen’s excellent, though slightly fawning, 2008 biography, Outlaw Journalist. After his father died, Thompson graduated from pranks to petty crime and was locked up for two months for threatening to rape a girl during a small-time robbery. Choosing the Air Force over a life of crime, he started writing sports stories for a base newspaper and fell in love with journalism. For a decade, he knocked around the lower rungs of the news trade, filing increasingly wild and unverifiable feature pieces from Puerto Rico and South America until the mid-1960s, when he stumbled onto his first great subject, the Hells Angels.

Flush with the success of Hells Angels, his book about the year he spent hanging out with – and, famously, getting stomped by – the outlaw biker gang, Thompson signed a contract to write a book on the ponderous subject of The Death of the American Dream. It was a dumb idea for a book and he never wrote it, but the theme festered in the back of his mind for years while he was getting beaten up by Mayor Daley’s cops in Chicago in 1968 and watching one after another of his liberal political heroes get gunned down, until that March day in 1971 when he set out across the Mojave Desert with Acosta.

Fear and Loathing compresses two separate trips Thompson took to Las Vegas that spring – the first to cover a motorcycle race called the Mint 400, the second to cover the National District Attorneys’ Conference on Drug Abuse – into a single hellish week of drug consumption and debauchery. To these real-life assignments Thompson adds a third, deeper quest: his much-delayed search for the American Dream. Whether Fear and Loathing is a work of journalism or fiction is a topic of fierce contention among die-hard HST heads, but in truth the book is neither. It is myth. Two seekers, a great white Hunter and his brown guide, cross the desert into the American heart of darkness in search of what killed the spirit of hope and innocence that animated the decade just ended.

The first thing that strikes you when you read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 2011, beyond the rotary phones and the 29-cent burgers, is what a sad story it is. Don’t get me wrong; parts of it are still very funny. It is a tribute to Thompson’s comic genius that all these years later Raoul Duke’s acid-fueled description of entering a Vegas hotel bar can make a grown man like me, whose druggie years are decades in the past, laugh so hard he snorts ginger ale out of his nose:

Terrible things were happening all around us. Right next to me a huge reptile was gnawing on a woman’s neck, the carpet was a blood-soaked sponge – impossible to walk on it, no footing at all. “Order some golf shoes,” I whispered. “Otherwise, we’ll never get out of this place alive. You notice these reptiles don’t have any trouble moving around in this muck – that’s because they have claws on their feet.

But for long stretches the book reads like an all-too-accurate description of a weeklong binge, with all the shapelessness and pointlessness that implies. Minor characters appear and disappear with barely a ripple, plans are meticulously devised and abandoned, weapons are drawn in murderous rage and then moments later forgotten, and when all is said and done it adds up to not very much. Duke doesn’t get either of the stories he is sent to Las Vegas to get, he never finds the American Dream, and by the end, when his plane out of Vegas lands in Colorado, he is so addled he literally doesn’t know where he is.

The sadness is never more clear than in the well-known “wave passage” that appears midway through the book. Thompson is said to have considered this aria to the death of innocence to be one of the finest things he ever wrote, and it is indeed a lovely piece of writing. In it, he describes a series of late-night motorcycle rides around San Francisco, in an effort to convey what it was like to be alive in that city in the mid-1960s “when the energy of a whole generation” struck “in a long fine flash”:

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning….Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

It goes by so fast that if you’re not paying attention you could miss it: “Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting.” What drugs were these people on? They wanted to change the world, turn back the largest military machine in the history of the world, and they saw no point in fighting?

Of course, many in the anti-war movement did fight. Some were beaten up by police, others went to jail or left the country, and a few even died. Unlike the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, however, who were under no illusion about what they were up against, the leaders of the Peace Generation were by and large children of privilege who believed that if they spoke truth to those in power – who were, after all, their parents – they would be heard. But once the Flower Children had finished sitting in and singing mean songs about the president, when their parents, Nixon’s Silent Majority, went ahead and fought the war anyway, most cut their hair and found jobs.

But not Raoul Duke, our latter-day Don Quixote who drives into Vegas with his 300-pound Sancho Panza and a head full of acid to figure out what went wrong. Duke is a horror show – violent, misogynistic, full of a manic male rage that is fueling his appetite for drugs – but in a world of hustlers, pimps and bullshit artists, he is an honest man. He lies constantly, but never to himself, or to his readers. He understands how destructive he is, and he describes, with almost compulsive honesty, what it must feel like to totally lose faith in one’s self and one’s country. In the end, he is demoralized, smashed against the rocks of history, and though he never comes out and says so, one suspects that one of the reasons he’s so heartbroken is that he knows he has no one to blame but himself.

This may explain why Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas made such a stir when it first came out: it not only sounded the death knell of the 1960s, but also helped make sense of its ignominious end. Raoul Duke is no Flower Child, but he is the freakiest of the Freaks and he believes, with his own freakish fervency, in the nobility of what his generation was trying to achieve. What he sees from that hilltop in Vegas, despite the fistfuls of drugs he takes to obscure his vision, is that his side has lost, not because the cause wasn’t just or because the enemy wasn’t evil, but because he and his compatriots were too self-involved, too drunk on their rightness, to fully appreciate the power of their opponent.

Like his alter ego, Hunter S. Thompson was nearing the end of his tether by the time Fear and Loathing appeared in 1971. He published another couple decent books and one perfectly awful one, The Curse of Lono, about Hawaii, and then he more or less gave up. For the last 20 years of his life until his 2005 suicide, except for some rather disjointed newspaper columns, he wrote little new material and instead filled book after book with pages from his vast archives of old letters, articles, unpublished novels, and screeds.

I got to know Thompson a little midway into this long, sad decline when I worked as a reporter in Aspen, Colorado, in the early 1990s. Whatever else you could say about the man, he was a terrific interview. He mumbled so badly that you missed three-quarters of what he said, but what slipped through the rocks in his mouth cohered into hilarious little sonnets of invective directed at the greedheads and pigfuckers and scurvy rats gnawing at your bones. But my principal memory of him is a silent one. At some point along the line, he had been given a replica of the Great Red Shark, and many nights walking home after deadline, I saw him driving it aimlessly down the back alleys of downtown Aspen. One night – it must have been summer because he had the top down – he passed by me very slowly, and for three or four long seconds, our eyes met. He was middle-aged by then, his face wrinkled and doughy, the bags under his eyes dark as oil slicks, but he stared at me in that intense Hunter way of his, and I remember thinking: That is the saddest, loneliest-looking man I have ever seen.

And then he drove on, my childhood outlaw hero, all alone in a fire-red Chevy convertible, cruising the back alleys of Aspen, heading nowhere in particular.

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