Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

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Read 17/05/2017-18/05/2017

Rating: 4 stars

This is a very funny book, chaotically and terrifyingly so. I don’t need to tell you what it’s about. You already know what it’s about.

I’ve had my copy for about ten years. It was given to me by a chaotic and terrifying writer that I once knew. I think he was attempting to channel Hunter S Thompson. Sometimes that’s all you can do when you live in darkest South Wales.

I’ve been saving it up for a moment such as the one that hit me this week. I’m calling it existential nihilism, even though that gives more weight to my ‘so what?’ than it deserves. I’m down. The final step in grieving. I felt like I needed oblivion, but I’ve got a job and a mortgage and an inbuilt sense of responsibility, so instead of popping over to the local park to see what one of the mildly threatening dealers might have stashed in his baby’s nappy, I chose oblivion at a remove, described by a man with a stronger liver than me.

The only other book by Thompson that I’ve read is The Rum Diary, which I read not quite two decades ago. In comparison with a number of reviews I’ve since glanced at, I bucked the trend by enjoying it in all its flawed naivety. I thought it was funny. It’s nothing next to Fear and Loathing, though.

I truly hope that the sports journalists Thompson encountered at the start of the Mint 400 race were as fucked as he describes in the book. I truly hope things were as barmy as he makes them sound.

The frog-eyed woman clawed feverishly at his belt. ‘Stand up!’ she pleaded. ‘Please stand up! You’d be a very handsome man if you’d just stand up!’
He laughed distractedly. ‘Listen, madam,’ he snapped. ‘I’m damn near intolerably handsome down here where I am. You’d go crazy if I stood up!’
The woman kept pulling at him. She’d been mooning at his elbows for two hours, and now she was making her move. The man from Life wanted no part of it; he slumped deeper into his crouch.
I turned away. It was too horrible. We were, after all, the absolute cream of the national sporting press. And we were gathered here in Las Vegas for a very special assignment: to cover the Fourth Annual ‘Mint 400’ … and when it comes to things like this, you don’t fool around.

So says the man who arrived at the Mint Hotel tripping so hard on acid that all he could see were lizards and carpets of blood. If that’s not fooling around, I wonder what is.

Things, of course, don’t go to the accepted standard of well. To the standard of getting royally fucked on a cocktail of drugs that leave Thompson’s attorney seeking frantic oblivion in an oily bath while listening to White Rabbit, however, they go perfectly.

There’s acknowledgement of how bad drugs are in the sphere beyond their reality shifting, psychotropic effects. Thompson reads in the paper about a young man inured on PCP.

Wednesday night police said Innes seemed to be in a deeply depressed state and so impervious to pain that he did not scream when he pulled out his eyes.

Thompson fails to cover the Mint 400, spending too much time otherwise engaged and racking up a monumental room service bill that necessitates leaving town without settling up. He’s soon back, though, lured by his attorney to cover an anti-narcotics convention. Actual fear of being busted for possession and use mixes with paranoic fear of being turned in for possession and use. I understand taking the edge off with recreational drugs, or enhancing an experience, but why would you fill your body with so much shit that you’re freaking out all the time? Reading about their exploits is funny, but it must have been exhausting to live through.

The scene where the pair drive down the Strip in their rented Cadillac, with the attorney shrieking at the occupants of a Ford pulled up beside them, made me think of a less genteel version of Withnail and I, where the propellant is higher octane than booze or lighter fluid.

Thompson’s observations on the American Dream, as he ploughs through the underbelly of existence in Las Vegas, make the book more than just a drug buddy memoir. In the midst of a series of drug-fuelled panics about every last little thing that could go wrong, Thompson’s alter ego Raoul Duke is scathing about the lies dressed up as dreams and ambitions that keep American citizens in line. His observations on American life are sharp. He pulls no punches where the father of Acid Culture, Timothy Leary, is concerned, either.

What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped to create … a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody – or at least some force – is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel.

This is the same cruel and paradoxically benevolent bullshit that has kept the Catholic Church going for so many centuries. It is also the military ethic … a blind faith in some higher and wiser ‘authority’. The Pope, The General, The Prime Minister … all the way up to ‘God’.

His analysis of how far behind the curve the anti-narcotics convention-goers were, with their focus on acid and uppers, was interesting. Thompson suggests that uppers are the drug for optimistic times, losing popularity in the US when Lyndon B Johnson left office. Writing in the Nixon-era, Thompson holds that recreational drug taking had switched to downers. Anaesthetising yourself against the corruption in the system was how things were playing out under Nixon. It made me wonder whether there is a trend these days. It seems to me that, as with most things, anything goes. Whatever floats your boat or gets you through the night. Not being around that sort of scene any more, I can’t say. I’m too old for partying, these days.

Still, it did me good to read this, in my momentary funk. It distracted me nicely.

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