The gonzo genius's finest hour
It is nearly two years since Hunter S. Thompson shot himself in the head. Afterwards, Johnny Depp financed his funeral. It involved Thompson’s ashes being fired, alongside multicoloured fireworks, from a canon in the shape of a fist, atop a 150ft tower, to Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’.
It all sounds a bit eccentric, and for anyone else it might have been, but Hunter S. Thompson is probably the only man for whom this weird, celebratory sending off seems almost understated in comparison to his oddball existence. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is his best work: a furiously fast-paced account of Thompson (under the alias Raoul Duke) and his attorney Dr. Gonzo in Vegas, commissioned by Sports Illustrated to cover a dirt track motorbike race, the Mint 400. That’s just about the whole plot right there.
What follows is two hundred pages of unstructured, drug-addled madness: some of it true to experience, large swathes fabricated or fictionalised by Thompson’s own intoxicated mind. Faithful to his own invented journalistic genre, gonzo journalism, ‘Fear and Loathing’ reads as the highly entertaining, unedited exploits of two messy maniacs, lewd and lost in the washed up wastes of ‘the high and beautiful wave’ of sixties counterculture. The seventies are portrayed as the afterparty of the ‘decade of dope’, a time when a whole hungover generation drugged themselves to delinquency to escape rather than to explore.
Stylistically apocalyptic, the work is anchored by and unequivocally connected to the notion of the American dream gone wrong. The literary tradition into which it falls is an important one: from the gorged excess of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the voracious appetite of Henry Miller, Thompson emerged with the spewed-out scribblings of the kids that could have it all, and took too much.
‘Fear and Loathing’ remains funny and fast and fucked up to just about everyone fortunate enough to read it, but underneath all the entertaining skits and piecemeal details a careful eye will see that Thompson knew the good times were over. The politically turgid decade of Nixon and Vietnam awaited those who survived the hedonism of the sixties, and emerged from the froth of the wave that finally broke.