Vintage, 1971 (1998 reprint), 204 pages, C$14.95 tpb, ISBN 0-679-78589-2
I wasn’t planning on re-reading this book. My “Year of the Thompson” didn’t include another pit-stop in Las Vegas given that I had read this book in 1999 and I don’t usually re-read books unless I have good reasons. But the amount of Thompson biographical information I’ve been consuming lately naturally led back to another look at he book, a look that became even more urgent once I searched my archives and realized I had never formally reviewed the book at length. So here goes:
This is a book that comes with a lot of baggage. It’s Thompson’s best-known work, and arguably the single item that made him popular with casual readers. On a surface level, it’s fiction about two wild and crazy guys doing drugs (and I mean a lot of drugs) and behaving badly in Las Vegas at the beginning of the seventies. But the more you know about Thompson or about the sixties, the more the book becomes something else, starting out by acting crazy, but eventually finding that it all leads to a hollow place, an artificial recreation of a failed ideal, or an excuse to be unpleasant to others.
It does start out in an amusing fashion. I defy any fan of the book to resist the impulse to read the first few lines out loud, or linger a bit longer on the description of what’s in the protagonist’s suitcases. In the first two pages of the book, you can already find the unique mixture of craziness and world-weary knowledge (“There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge.” [P.2]) that fuels most of the novel.
But the influence of drugs and a thorough knowledge of depravity aren’t quite enough to characterize Thompson’s narration, which wouldn’t be complete without the certitude that the good times have ended, that civilization is in decline and that the nuclear-powered apocalypse may begin at any moment. This, I often feel, is what separates the good Thompson imitators from the superficial ones. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas may describe irresponsibility, as its characters ignore their professional obligations, steal hotel soap in bulk and trash the rooms they’re given. But they’re doing so out of the conviction that none of it matters, that they will be dead by the time their credit ratings will be revised.
This sense of impending doom constantly floats above the novel, but it becomes more and more apparent as it goes on. War in Vietnam, Nixon, the atonal passage on the high water mark of the sixties… it all leads to feckless recklessness, until the terrible scene where a waitress is pushed too far and (unlike a previously-scared maid) cannot be brought back into the protagonist’s shared madness which, by this point, is starting to wear thin and veer in either paranoia or depression.
Particularly empathic readers will catch this nuance that eludes those who read the novel as a drug-addled jaunt through Vegas: As our characters get away with acting rudely, it’s not hard to feel poorly for those they leave behind in their wake. The characters may come to realize the consequences of their actions late in the book (“I’d abused every rule Vegas lived by –burning the locals, abusing the tourists, terrifying the help.”) [P.173], but by that time a number of readers will have rejected the idea that they are in any way admirable. (The movie adaptation is broadly faithful to this interpretation.)
Those who know Thompson will get more out of the book than those who discover Thompson through it. There are references to Hell’s Angels and San Francisco and to Colorado, but also a sense that it’s through fiction that Thompson could spread his wings at the widest, writing more casually about his true themes. The Rum Diary and other short fiction aside, it’s a shame that Thompson was never able to revisit the same place. But maybe it couldn’t be revisited.
For those who haven’t read Thompson before, well, it’s a trip of a different sort. It’s a very short novel (barely over 50,000 words), but it’s dense in events and hard-hitting narration. Take your time, savor one chapter every day, don’t see this as a guide to emulate, and everything will be fine. Which is more than we can say for Thompson or his alter-ego.