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Fear and Loathing at 50: A Misunderstood American Classic

Fifty years ago today, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” was first published on the pages of Rolling Stone. Neither wholly factual nor fictional, it was a hallucinatory, hilarious account of two men abusing various drugs in the titular desert city. Though it was an instant hit, turning its author into a countercultural icon, it remains to this day profoundly misunderstood and often maligned.

This is perhaps unsurprising, as the story was always intended to confuse and mislead. Hunter S. Thompson liked to force his reader to ponder the degree to which he had blended reality and fantasy, layering bizarre flights of fancy over otherwise real scenes. Yet whilst this was meant as commentary on issues of power and manipulation, forcing the public to question, rather than accept, given narratives, his Gonzo prose often seemed boastful and juvenile – a self-indulgent exercise in machismo à la Hemingway.

To view Fear and Loathing in this way, however, is to do it and its author a grave disservice. Thompson was at that point a serious young writer intent on exploring the issues of his era in a style peculiarly suited to those turbulent times. Famously, the book was an inquiry into the death of the American Dream, yet it asked a great many questions and explored a wide array of issues, all the while demonstrating Thompson’s skill as a surprisingly gifted and nuanced writer.

Out now from Beatdom Books.

We can see, for example, Thompson attempting in numerous instances to not only depict but replicate the effects of drugs, meanwhile asking why these substances are demonized when no one can tell their users apart from common drunks. He scrutinized the dominant American culture of the era whilst at the same time eulogizing and critiquing the naïve and often fraudulent hippie culture that had come to an end several years earlier, while using a variety of literary devices to highlight the ignorance and brutality of American law enforcement.

Through it all, he was attempting to update The Great Gatsby for his generation. Whilst on the surface there is little to connect these two books, a closer reading highlights the fact that Thompson was keen to replicate his favorite novel, and he admitted this in various interviews. From the thematic similarities to imagery and even the word count, there are numerous comparisons, but a subtle and overlooked example can be found in Thompson’s attempt to reproduce the final pages of Gatsby in his famed “wave passage” – perhaps the most beautiful and elegiac writing he ever produced. Here, he reused the ideas and sentence structure of those landmark paragraphs in his finest effort at making himself the Fitzgerald of his era.

Whether it was that he was too successful as a comedic writer or that he attempted to bury too many themes and templates beneath his story’s satiric surface, the result was a stunningly popular but ultimately misunderstood book that is too frequently dismissed. Half a century later, even Thompson’s fans still struggle to separate author from protagonist and seldom look beyond the book’s surface text, and as such it is frequently relegated to the status of frat-boy lit. Thompson is viewed as suitable for Halloween costumes and dorm room posters, but not taken seriously as a writer, and this is a travesty.

Though it is true that his best work all emerged during a short period early in his career, with little worth reading from his post-1972 output, his finest work was daring, innovative, and influential, and he deserves to be viewed alongside other great American writers. On the fiftieth anniversary of perhaps his greatest work, we ought to reflect on him not merely as the drugged-up and cartoonish Raoul Duke, but rather a writer so unique that his work formed its own literary genre: Gonzo.

David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom literary journal and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the Weird Cult, World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller, and High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism.

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