“It’s interesting to note historically that downers came in with Nixon.”
Such is the distain that our author felt for the Nixon administration that he would make a point of writing this note. This is from the closing chapters of Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’, the now infamous, drug fuelled, post-modern adventure in search of the fabled American Dream with Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo. Like most patriotic concepts, the American dream is something that everyone knows about but cannot tell you what exactly it is. The war poets pointed this out to us almost a century ago and it still has yet to settle in. But enough of my opinions on that matter, lets stick to the book.
I had only watched Terry Gilliam’s film adaptation about a year previous to reading the book, and typical of a book put to film, many were telling me how the film was faithful but the book still better. So I became curious. What I came to realise was that Gilliam was going for a vivid visual interpretation of Thompson’s detailed descriptions. A perfect example is when ‘Duke’ takes a drop of fluid from a human adrenal gland. In the film, we see Duke (Johnny Depp) sweating furiously and seeing Dr.Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) as a red devil. The intense heat and confusion of the moment are emphasised visually, whereas, in the book Thompson goes into detail about how he took one drop and began to feel hot and tense, took a second and his muscles began to lock up so tight that he could barely move, his teeth forced together as if they were a vice. The accounts Thompson gives of moments like these are striking and create immense mental images while reading: this is what Gilliam set out to capture in his colourful fashion.
In a generation such as ours that, I think it is fair to say, believes nothing but consumerism and has to fight for nothing (at least nothing worth fighting for, see lyrics from ‘The Coronas’ to flesh out my point), it is fascinating to read of, what Thompson considered, the death knell of a time that really meant something. His behaviour can lead one to think that he cares about little or nothing but Thompson, through Duke’s words, expresses the sadness that came when the 60’s were over. Even a casual reading of Howard Zinn’s ‘A People’s History of the United States’ can demonstrate just what an incredible period of upheaval that decade really was. Between black rights, women’s rights, tackling political corruption, environmentalism, Native American rights, prison reform, military reform, etc. The 60’s saw the USA change in an unprecedented way. The end of this time, coupled with the days of Nixon, and Tim Leary’s doctrine going nowhere, leads Thompson to lament and hark back to a better time just as that time is coming to an end.
What Gilliam missed, in my opinion, was the heavy social issues which the book deals with. Thompson creates an atmosphere of staleness and conformity against which Duke and Gonzo grind. A small statement about Las Vegas of the time, and a bigger statement about America of the time. All of which is written in masterful, down-to-earth language that, a few slang terms aside, is quite timeless.
As I already mentioned, our nameless generation (somehow ‘Generation Y’ just seems impotent) could benefit from reading about a time that truly did matter in many ways, some remembered, more forgotten. OK, I’ll admit, a mescaline powered rampage may not be the ideal package for that story, but why not?
“And that, I think, was the handle; that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of old and evil. Not in any mean or military sense, we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. 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.”
By Edward Gerard Brophy,