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In which Netty returns to Las Vegas, fear and loathing aside …

September 11, 2010

Killer opening lines. Whether you’re crafting a novel, writing song lyrics or even trying to pick someone up in a bar, it pays to have a killer opening line in your back pocket.

With that in mind, here’s the first sentence of American gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, undisputedly his most famous work: “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

Seriously. Now, after reading just that one line, tell me you don’t want to devour the entire book in one sitting.

I’m a big, big Hunter S. Thompson fan and I’m not going to make any apologies for that, but nor am I so blind as to believe that everything the great man ever put into print was the stuff of pure genius. But even his most steadfast critics must concede that if Thompson had never committed anything else to paper, he could easily have dined out on Fear And Loathing for the rest of his life – which, incidentally, he ended in 2005 at the age of 67, supposedly after health problems finally got the better of him. So in the wake of 1960s’ “New Journalism”, Thompson pioneered the technique that became known as “gonzo” – essentially melding fact and fiction in reportage to the extent where the lines are well and truly blurred – and then produced its best-ever example.

I rest my case, your honour.

First published as a book in 1971 (it originally appeared as a two-part article in Rolling Stone earlier that year), Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas (subtitled A Savage Journey Into The American Dream) is essentially a book about the death of the American 1960s counterculture movement. With some of its stream-of-consciousness passages ruminating on politics and the state of the nation, it’s Thompson waking up from a 1960s mother-of-all benders to the 1970s hangover from hell – with his long-time nemesis Richard Nixon looming large over subsequent proceedings.

The book opens with the narrator Raoul Duke – a “doctor of journalism” – having accepted a magazine assignment to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race in Las Vegas. Accompanied by his 300-pound Samoan attorney, Dr Gonzo (based on Thompson’s real-life friend, Mexican lawyer and activist Oscar Zeta Acosta), Duke hires a Chevy convertible dubbed the Great Red Shark and ploughs most of a $300 expense account into drugs (“two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half-full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multic-coloured 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”).  The pair tear through the desert to their destination, twisted beyond belief on drugs, picking up and scaring the bejesus out of an unsuspecting hitchhiker.  In Vegas, the race becomes an after-thought as Duke and Dr Gonzo plunder their stash, carouse through the casinos and bars, run up expenses they have no hope of paying and half-destroy their hotel suite, before the attorney absconds back to Los Angeles.

Duke, too, attempts to leave and gets as far as Baker (where he has a hilarious encounter with the Californian Highway Patrol), but is lured back to Vegas after receiving a telegram from Dr Gonzo, advising him that he has a fresh magazine assignment – ironically, to cover the National District Attorneys’ Association conference on narcotics and dangerous drugs – complete with a new car (this time a Cadillac convertible dubbed the White Whale), a new hotel and a new expense account.   And there’s also a new set of obstacles thrown into the mix – besides the several hundred cops who have descended on the city, Duke and Dr Gonzo also have to skirt around Lucy, a Barbra Streisand-fixated runaway whom the attorney befriends and doses up on acid on the flight back into Vegas; and various receptionists, maids and waitresses (most memorably, the chapter that takes place at Terry Taco’s Stand), as the conference fades into the distance and their hunt for the American Dream intensifies.

I hadn’t read Fear And Loathing for a long, long time, but it was like catching up with a crazy old rat-bag of a friend you haven’t seen for years – everything is instantly immediate, familiar and a helluva lot of fun, even if you’re left with a thumping headache and empty pockets at the end of it all. The writing crackles with energy and zest, mirroring the highs and lows of the narrator’s trip, both external and internal, literal and drug-induced.  There’s paranoia, delusion and insanity aplenty strewn throughout these pages, but it’s balanced with great lashings of humour, sly wit and laugh-out-loud moments  – reading it is like being caught up on a high-speed train that threatens to jump off the rails at any minute, but miraculously never quite does.

There are two copies of Fear And Loathing in my library, both with the original and famous illustrations by cartoonist Ralph Steadman, Thompson’s long-time sidekick and a man allegedly even more taken with excess than HST himself. The book was inevitably made into a 1998 movie, directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro (I could only bring myself to finally watch it a couple of years ago, fearing the worst, but it turned out to be not too bad after all). I also have a truncated version of the book as a spoken-word CD, released in 1996 and voiced primarily by Harry Dean Stanton, Jim Jarmusch and Maury Chaykin, which I highly recommend, if it’s still available.

I must have been around 18, 19 when I first read Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. And if I’m still around at 98, 99, I expect I’ll still be rereading it. I also expect most people who are reading this blog have also read the book. And if not, well, what the hell are you waiting for? In the words of the good doctor himself, buy the ticket, take the ride.

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