Fact and Fiction in Fear and Loathing

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is now generally considered a work of fiction. It is the work for which Hunter S Thompson is best known, for which he receives the greatest praise and parody, and about which the most debate exists. It’s the book that inspired a generation of wannabe Gonzo writers, sent idiots armed with quotations to hassle Thompson wherever he went, and made the author a public enemy and the biographer of modern America. It was his On the Road. None of his other books contained such excess, madness and brilliance. He incriminates himself, sends each and every reader into shock and fits of uncontrollable laughter, and sums up the death of hope for the American Dream as eloquently as any great writer.

It bugged Thompson to see idiotic kids running about in Hawaiian shirts, sun hats, sunglasses, smoking cigarettes from long holders, pushing their poor imitations on MySpace forums and quoting passages from FLLV about bats and drugs… Suspiciously, only the quotes used in that unfairly derided movie starring Johnny Depp… It’s the book that hardcore Thompson fans pretend is their least favourite of his, but which was deservedly the book that earned Thompson his place in the canon of Twentieth Century American literature.
Dr Gonzo

The creation of the book came with Thompson’s attempt to write an expose on the death of Ruben Salazar. In order to interview his source, attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta, the two escaped the racially heated tension of Los Angeles and went to Las Vegas to cover the Mint 400 for Sports Illustrated. The job was meant to be a simple process of writing copy to accompany a series of photos, but Thompson began writing notes for a book about the death of the American Dream. The Salazar piece was written for Rolling Stone, while Thompson wrote the manuscript for Fear and Loathing in his spare time. Sports Illustrated ‘aggressively rejected’ Thompson’s article on the Mint 400, which by the time he submitted it, had spiralled to ten times the desired word count.[1]

The best way to understand the book is to read Thompson’s Jacket Copy for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, as published in his collection, The Great Shark Hunt. Here Thompson describes his views on the book, stating the result was ‘a failed experiment in gonzo journalism.’[2] However, this doesn’t mean that Thompson necessarily viewed the book as a failure, but rather that he envisioned the literary genre of Gonzo, set out its principles, and then failed to achieved what he’d set out to accomplish. He wanted to record events exactly in his notebook, and then publish the notebook, much like he claimed to have done with the ‘Kentucky Derby’ piece. However, he ended up editing and writing frantically, and the result was the book.

The statement that the book was ‘a failed experiment in gonzo journalism’ implies that he intended the book as purely journalistic, but that it failed. Whether it failed as journalism or as his particular and intended form of journalism is unclear. However, he precedes the statement of Gonzo failure with musings about Faulkner’s notion of good fiction being more true than journalism. Thompson argues that both fiction and journalism are ‘artificial categories’, and then gives up trying to explain, resorting to an explanation of his own hybrid theory of Gonzo. Certainly, the mention of Faulkner’s idea is a suggestion that perhaps Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was more a novel than a work of journalism, but that given the subject of the novel was the end of the drug decade and the American Dream, then the loosely autobiographical nature of the text qualifies the novel to a status of accurate depiction more appropriate and comprehensive than any work of pure journalism could have achieved.

So there we have the story of a journalist failing to report his story, written by a journalist failing to report his story, with the result being a novel more accurate than any journalism, and taking into account, and beautifully describing the state of the era and the death of an idea…

So then Thompson accurately described a generation, a time, an event, and a host of ideas. But the book itself was about the story of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo, based on Thompson and Acosta, going to Vegas to cover the Mint 400. How much of their bizarre and illegal actions actually occurred?

Certainly, the framework of the book was invented during Thompson’s rewriting of the original notes that he believed would be published raw and unedited as his intended version of Gonzo. Whereas he wanted everything as it happened, jotted down and accurate, he later resorted to changing the chronology of the events, having over a month of action crammed into a few days. For example, the race and the narcotic convention took place over a month apart, with the Mint 400 starting on Sunday 20th March, 1970, and the convention on 25th April. However, certain truths do hold up to scrutiny, as Debbie Reynolds indeed played the Desert Inn the weekend of the race. And his description of the topless dancers at the Circus Circus holds up to historical study, too.[3] Thompson later stated, in his Rolling Stone interview with P.J. O’Rourke, that time in the novel was unclear and insignificant, and that moving the two events closer together really didn’t matter.[4]

It’s very possible that Thompson invented much of the action and dialogue in the book, as any novelist would, to convey the ideas he wanted to convey and to entertain the reader. Two drug-addled maniacs on the loose in a city of people as depraved and ignorant as the maniacs certainly sets an interesting premise for an indictment of Las Vegas, and of modern American greed and affluence. At the same time Thompson was having his characters live out the dying days of the hippy generation, when drug use was widespread, and by having his characters embody the hedonistic madness, he could pass comment on the death of the sixties idealism.

Yet knowing what Thompson was like as man, it’s hard to believe everything that happened was fictional. Indeed, Thompson himself has never claimed the work to be entirely factual, but it was always a given that he used language to make things sound a little more exciting. He was notorious for showing off and getting in trouble, and while he probably created many of the incidents as foregrounding for the espousing of ideas, it’s unlikely that much was created solely in his head. In the BBC documentary, Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood, he says: Raoul Duke ‘was a vehicle for quotations nobody else would say… that was me really talking.’[5]

Getting back to Thompson’s own explanation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it’s again hard to take anything as definite truth. The piece was written some six months after writing Fear and Loathing, and that was back in the days before fame and the security of being respected. Thompson’s credentials then relied on his talent, his intelligence, and his bad-boy reputation. It was the insanity that sold the copies, and the genius that got the reviews. Yet those were dangerous times, and admitting entirely to the actions contained within the book would have been foolish. He never denied nor fully owned up to what allegedly happened in Vegas. What he writes is about having fun in Las Vegas, suggesting strongly that he did do all the things Raoul Duke did, without directly reference any specific action. However, he then states ‘Only a goddamn lunatic would write a thing like this and then claim it was true.’[6]  This suggests either that the work was so obviously fictional and barely based on any form of truth that it would be idiotic call it journalism, or, more likely, that it would be foolish to own up to the realities of the text, but that Thompson didn’t mind implying that what happened accurately depicted.

Even twenty-five years on, in an interview with Rolling Stone, Thompson is coy with his explanations of ‘the Vegas book.’ ‘”A work of the imagination” was what [Random House editor] Jim Silberman came up with. Of course, it didn’t stick. We went to “nonfiction,” which led to it being categorised as “sociology.” As far as I was concerned, I was writing what happened to me in Las Vegas. It was just in the gonzo thinking, taking it one step further.’[7]

Certainly he sought some infamy after writing the text, first chastising the editors of Sports Illustrated for passing up his piece, telling them they had ‘set in motion a fantastic mushroom… When you see the fireball, remember that it was all your fault.’[8] Then he told the story of his rejection, repeatedly calling it ‘aggressive’ and changing the alleged desired word count and the number he supposedly sent the editors.

Thompson then sent his manuscript to Tom Wolfe, telling him it was largely written in ‘an all-night drink/drugs frenzy’ and later edited together in a hotel. Thompson then informed Silberman that he was not on drugs while writing anything to do with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and that the book was rather ‘a very conscious effort to simulate drug freakout… I didn’t really make up anything – but I did, at times, bring situations & feelings I remember from other scenes to the reality at hand.’[9] This is perhaps the most telling and convincing explanation of the composition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as it allows us to combine the knowledge that we have of Thompson – that he was a crazed drug fiend and a professional and intelligent writer. He was professional enough to produce a book drawing upon his drug experiences as a front for exploring the Death of the American Dream, a theme he had been trying to write a book about for years. In the end, the chaos of the story became significant in itself, and one must wonder whether Thompson deliberately created or recounted the madness as a reflection upon society, or the loss of any meaning in that still-chased fantasy. Bruce-Novoa, claiming that Thompson’s work was essentially fiction, stated, ‘Gonzo fiction becomes a metaphor for the chaos of the American dream… [it] is fiction at work to produce that “truer reality” Faulkner sought.’[10] John Hellmann thought similarly of the comedy of the book: ‘The exposure of American values as self deceptions, has so long been typical of modern American literature, the search for those ideals can no longer be taken seriously.’[11] In other words, perhaps Thompson wrote his ridiculous parodies and comedies as a mockery, not necessarily on a person or group of people, but rather of the American Dream and American values.

 

Drugs certainly are what gained Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas its notoriety. Those who know nothing of his work are aware of the book and the film and all the illegal substances. Yet only Thompson and Acosta knew the truth behind the story in regards drugs. We can pick apart names and places and dates, but the drugs are something different, and we are pretty much reliant upon later interviews with Thompson to gain and insight into how much of it was true.

In one sense, it’s all true, in as much as the book is about Thompson looking at the world around him, with a head full of drugs. His perceptions may have included hallucinations, but he recorded them as accurately as he could, and in that sense, what he saw was reflected in the book. He may have used comedy and exaggeration, but he wrote about what he saw and thought.

But did he take what he said he took, and does it matter? No, it probably doesn’t matter because he used drugs as a device. Indeed, they were instrumental in the creation of the book, but also a literary tool. Thompson claimed drug logic took him from LA to Las Vegas, propelled the story as one long act of drug logic, and then helped and hindered him in writing the manuscript. They provided the plot and the style of narrative. They acted as a view to the counterculture, and as a way of highlighting the nature of the non-drug taking world.

 

The important thing in Hunter’s life, actually, is seeing that great country… go down the drain. The drugs play a part in it, it’s only another way of twisting the mental image… Maybe he needed something to speed himself up, to keep going, I mean in a way as a kind of dedication, just in order to see what he wanted to see.[12]

 

If we are to believe that Thompson and Acosta took massive quantities of various substances during their trip, which we should, then that brings us to the question of whether or not Thompson accurately reflected upon the experience. He told O’Rourke, in the Rolling Stone interview, that remembering and adequately describing a drug experience was one of the hardest things he’d ever done.[13]

This interview, ‘Fear and Loathing at 25’ allows us perhaps the reliable source of information about book from the author, as so much time had elapsed since its publication that Thompson really had nothing to prove. He was established and successful, and had nothing to hide nor gain in revealing the truth. Whereas in the ‘Jacket Copy’ piece, he wished to boost his reputation, but also had to avoid bringing the wrath of the law upon himself and Acosta, here Thompson discusses the circumstances of its conception without such motivation.

When discussing how much was true and how much was fabricated, Thompson mentions ‘imaginary alligators’. Obviously such things were hallucinations, but they were, as O’Rourke comments, ‘real imaginary.’ That is to say, what Thompson saw may not actually have been there, but he saw them nonetheless, and wrote about them. Therefore he accurately and truthfully recorded a trip. His thoughts were wild and absurd, but he really did think them.

The actual physical drugs, as mentioned earlier, probably existed, but we must consider how much Thompson exaggerated or hid, and how important this is to the text. If he exaggerated for theatrical or comical effect, and the drugs were merely a device, then it’s not that important, but would certainly push the labelling of the book closer to the fiction category. But it’s hard to say for sure what exactly was consumed.

The book famously begins with unrepentant drug use, and soon sees the description of the drugs allegedly consumed throughout:

 

We had two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker 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.[14]

 

Thompson follows this description with the claim that all of it was collected in one night of furious driving around Los Angeles. Knowing Thompson through his work and the testimony of those that knew him, it’s easy to believe that he could have owned and consumed all of this, but it’s harder to believe that it was all gathered in one night. This claim sounds more like a method of setting up the story – an early introduction to the carnage and depravity. Whether it’s true or not, we know from reading this that the protagonists are heavy drug users, and in some kind of rush.

Thompson liked to set himself as a device within his writing, whether as a pillar of relative normality in Hell’s Angels or a lost and confused reporter in ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas it seems that he took a role similar to that of ‘The Kentucky Derby’ and added more drugs to reflect upon the world around him and the death of something that had for a long time been mired in drug talk. The drugs worked for him, and although he may not have advocated them to others, they were an essential component of his greatest book.

One of his most famous drug references was the passage in Fear and Loathing with adrenochrome. To see the importance of Thompson’s description upon the history of the drug, and the relative lack of knowledge surrounding it, one must simple Google it. There is very little known about the substance, and it remains uncontrolled in the United States. According to Terry Gilliam, director of the movie, adrenocrome was an invention by Thompson, and consequently both the book and movie portray a fictional drug.[15] However, unknown to Gilliam, but presumably known to Thompson, the drug exists. Its effects, however, are known, and the method of its production is fictionalised in both the book and the movie. For a start, adrenochrone is produced not through the extraction of a human pineal gland, but rather through the oxidation of epinephrine.[16] The effects of adrenochrome are also debated, as some scientists believe it to be hallucinogenic and others don’t. Perhaps Thompson heard of the drug through Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception.



[1] Hunter S. Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time (Picador: London, 1979) p. 114

[2] Ibid

[3] F. Andrew Taylor, The City: In Search of Thompson’s Vegas, from vegas.com, 1997

[4] O’Rourke, P.J., ‘Fear and Loathing at 25’, Rolling Stone, November, 1996

[5] Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood

[6] Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt p. 116

[7] O’Rourke, ‘Fear and Loathing at 25’, Rolling Stone

[8] Back of ’72 book

[10] Bruce-Novoa, J., ‘Fear and Loathing on the Buffalo Trail’ MELUS 6.4 (1979) p. 43

[11] Hellmann, J., ‘Journalism and Parody’ p. 82

[12] Steadman talking in Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood

[13] ‘Fear and Loathing at 25’

[14] Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream

[15] Gilliam, T., ‘Director’s Commentary’, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

[16] MacCarthy, Chim, Ind. Paris 55,435(1946)

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Author: David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom magazine and the author of The Dog Farm. He travels a lot, and is currently working as a professor in China. His latest book is called Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult. You can read more about and by David at his blog, www.davidswills.com or on Tumblr.

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2 Comments

  1. How exactly does one “receive parody?” Are we suddenly devoid of the basic rules of the language?

    Also, Johnny Depp was a close friend of Hunter Thompson and he had a very, very large role in the shape and direction of the movie(s).

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  2. If you listen to “The Gonzo Tapes” you’ll realize Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was mostly fiction. Namely the drug-binge aspect of it.

    At one point, Hunter even laments the lack of drugs.

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