By Jonathan Yardley
Saturday, September 20, 2008
An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.
In March 1971, Hunter Stockton Thompson was in his mid-30s, grinding out a marginal career in freelance journalism. He had published one moderately successful book, "Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs," in the mid-'60s, and had managed to acquire something of a reputation for outlandish and self-destructive behavior, but he was not widely known, his financial situation was precarious, and he seemed fated to a career of little if any consequence.
Then he went to Las Vegas that March, ostensibly to cover an event known as the Mint 400 for Sports Illustrated, and everything began to change. The Mint 400 had been promoted to him as "the richest off-the-road race for motorcycles and dune-buggies in the history of organized sport -- a fantastic spectacle in honor of some fatback grossero named Del Webb, who owns the luxurious Mint Hotel in the heart of downtown Las Vegas," but it turned out to be a suffocating bore, Sports Illustrated rejected what little Thompson had written, and he turned his attentions elsewhere, thanks to a sudden assignment from the still youthful and still irreverent counterculture magazine Rolling Stone.
A bunch of lawyers and cops were about to descend on Las Vegas, and the magazine wanted Thompson to write about them. At first he thought the idea was insane, but gradually the possibilities dawned on him: "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." So Thompson said yes, and with that two seeds were planted: one for the legend of Hunter S. Thompson, gonzo journalist, and one for the most successful and famous of his books, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream."
The pieces for Rolling Stone were published in two installments in November 1971, the book by Random House the following year. My copy is actually the later (undated) Popular Library paperback, which confirms me in the suspicion that I first read "Fear and Loathing" in Rolling Stone. I was in my early 30s and no particular fan of the counterculture, but I liked some of the things the magazine was doing and had been a subscriber for a couple of years. I knew about Thompson because a good friend of mine had grown up with him in Louisville, so I read the Vegas pieces with anticipation and curiosity -- and, as it turned out, with great pleasure and excitement.
By the time of his suicide three years ago Thompson had become such a familiar presence in American journalism that there is no need, now, to describe in detail his volcanic, obscenity-laced, extravagantly self-mocking prose style, but in 1971 it was something almost entirely new, and it hit readers -- especially Thompson's fellow journalists -- right between the eyes. The "new" journalism by then was well established, with newspaper and magazine hacks all over the country trying to imitate the excesses of Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer, but Thompson was something completely different. This was journalism utterly without rules, holding no cows even remotely sacred, giving the finger to orthodoxy and convention in every form, and frequently unquotable -- today as then -- in a family newspaper.
Reread now, after a 27-year breather, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" holds up remarkably well. Its shock value is gone, of course, but its entertainment value remains surprisingly high. It's probably considerably more fiction than fact, yet there's a great deal of truth in it. Thompson never gets close to finding the American dream in Las Vegas, but from the beginning that merely seems a conceit tacked on in hopes of giving the book a thematic veneer. What really matters is Thompson's over-the-top self-portrait, his depiction of Vegas and the people he finds there, the incredible drawings by Ralph Steadman that accompany the narrative, and the narrative itself.
As many readers already know, Thompson is not for the faint of heart. Though his behavior probably was not quite as insane as the image he so carefully crafted would have us believe -- no one gets as much work done as he did if he's on drugs and booze all the time -- it remains that plenty of people would heartily disapprove of what he ate, what he drank, what he said and what he did. Four paragraphs into the book, he writes:
"The sporting editors had . . . given me $300 in cash, most of which was already spent on extremely dangerous drugs. The trunk of the car looked like a mobile police narcotics lab. 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."
Odds are that you find that either horrifying or hilarious; there's no in-between. Me, I find it hilarious. The only mood-altering substances to which I'm partial come in liquid form and are sold legally, but I still am hugely amused by the insouciance with which Thompson describes his stash, much of which may well have existed only in the exceedingly fertile territory of his imagination. Portraying himself as Raoul Duke, "doctor of journalism," and accompanied by his 300-pound Samoan lawyer, Doctor Gonzo -- an exceedingly fanciful portrait of Oscar Zeta Acosta, a prominent Mexican American attorney whom Thompson had befriended -- he takes the reader on a ride more bizarre, and much more fun, than anything previously dreamed up by Jack Kerouac or Ken Kesey.
The first vehicle in which we travel is an immense Chevrolet convertible christened "the Great Red Shark" by Thompson, but about halfway through the book -- once Thompson quits the Mint 400 and goes on the Rolling Stone expense account to cover the district attorneys' conference -- he junks that and rents "the Whale," a Cadillac Coupe de Ville, a model that went out of production a decade and a half ago but remains fixed in American legend, a distinction that must owe at least a tiny bit to Thompson:
"Everything was automatic. I could sit in the red-leather driver's seat and make every inch of the car jump, by touching the proper buttons. It was a wonderful machine: Ten grand worth of gimmicks and high-priced Special Effects. The rear-windows leaped up with a touch, like frogs in a dynamite pond. The white canvas top ran up and down like a roller-coaster. The dashboard was full of esoteric lights & dials & meters that I would never understand -- but there was no doubt in my mind that I was into a superior machine."
That's echt Thompson, from the carefully placed italics, to "like frogs in a dynamite pond," to the boyish delight in mechanical gimmickry, to the mixture of disdain and delight with which he viewed this rolling symbol of American vulgarity. Thompson was no H.L. Mencken, but the two shared a view of this country that fell somewhere between exasperated affection and utter revulsion. It was Mencken, after all, who coined the delicious word "booboisie" and famously said (or is reputed to have said) that "no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people," a sentiment with which Thompson would have heartily agreed, especially with regard to Las Vegas, of which he writes: "No, this is not a good town for psychedelic drugs. Reality itself is too twisted."
It isn't just the vulgarity of Vegas that strikes Thompson, though there's plenty of that to go around, but also the thuggishness. Caesars Palace and other hotel/casinos "pay a lot of muscle to make sure the high rollers don't have even momentary hassles with 'undesirables,' " i.e., "public drunks and known pickpockets" or just people who don't look as if they belong:
"The 'high side' of Vegas is probably the most closed society west of Sicily -- and it makes no difference, in terms of the day-to-day life-style of the place, whether the Man at the Top is Lucky Luciano or Howard Hughes. In an economy where Tom Jones can make $75,000 a week for two shows a night at Caesar's, the palace guard is indispensable, and they don't care who signs their paychecks. A gold mine like Vegas breeds its own army, like any other gold mine. Hired muscle tends to accumulate in fast layers around money/power poles . . . and big money, in Vegas, is synonymous with the Power to protect it."
It will be argued that today, nearly four decades later, Vegas has changed, has softened itself up for the family trade. That may be so, but there are more hotel/casinos than ever, and more people to be separated from their money, and Thompson nailed the scene for all eternity, as did John Gregory Dunne in his own "Vegas," published three years later. Still, the real star of this particular show isn't the city but the "doctor of journalism" who careens around it, "a relatively respectable citizen -- a multiple felon, perhaps, but certainly not dangerous" by contrast with others in the vicinity. "Is there a priest in this tavern?" he asks. "I want to confess! I'm a [expletive] sinner! Venal, mortal, carnal, major, minor -- however you want to call it, Lord . . . I'm guilty."
This is lovely stuff, as funny as it is calculatedly outrageous. Yes, like the words of the rest of us who toil in the evanescent precincts of journalism, Thompson's work will fade away in time. At the moment, though, an impressive number of his books remain in print, happy evidence that he'll be around for a good while longer.
"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" is available in a Vintage paperback ($13.95).
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.