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With 'Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas,' Hunter S. Thompson Stuck A Fork In The '60s

Culture | March 21, 2021

'Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas' cover art by Ralph Steadman. Source: Amazon.com

Hunter S. Thompson's Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, depicting a pair of misfits on a drug-fueled lost weekend, is an essential book of the '70s. Published in 1971, Fear And Loathing promised us "A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream" -- what it delivered was a state of the nation, a snapshot of America leaving the '60s behind. Narrator Raoul Duke and his attorney Dr. Gonzo are not hippies; they're disillusioned ex-hippies, and the changes they once hoped to enact have failed to happen. The mood of the country had turned very quickly with a string of events and news that decimated the optimism of the late '60s. In the 18 months since the Woodstock festival, America had witnessed the Manson family's Tate-Labianca murders, violence at the Altamont festival, reports of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, and the shootings of students by National Guard troops on the campus of Kent State University. Fear And Loathing isn't "about" any of those events, but it was written in their aftermath. It's a dark book -- but also a funny one -- that addressed a dark time.

Source: (YouTube).

The story of the writing of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas began when Thompson was writing an expose about the death of Ruben Salazar. Thompson had been living in Woody Creek Colorado when he flew out to Los Angeles to report on Ruben Salazar’s death. Salazar was a Mexican American journalist; Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officers shot and killed Salazar with a tear gas grenade fired at close range during the National Chicano Moratorium March against the Vietnam War in 1970. Thompson took attorney Nestor Acosta Zeta because of the racial tension in Los Angeles; Thompson found it hard to get Mexicans to talk openly with a white reporter.  

The First Trip To Vegas

The Mint 400. Source: (Pinterest)

Because Thompson needed a more comfortable place to discuss the story with Acosta, and because they were concerned that people would not talk to Acosta if they saw him talking to a white reporter, Thompson accepted an offer from Sports Illustrated to write photo captions for the annual Mint 400 desert race, which was being held in Las Vegas from March 21-23, 1971. He stayed in a hotel with Acosta and they could talk freely. Thompson wrote the captions for Sports Illustrated, but his writing became a lengthy analysis of gambling, excess, and the origins of Sin City within the framework of the Mint 400 race; he submitted text that was ten times the length of what was expected, and the story was rejected. Acosta went home early, leaving Thompson with Acosta’s weed and gun, which, in part, caused Thompson to panic and led him to formulate the thesis of his ideas about the modern American Dream. At the end of the trip, Thompson spent 36 hours alone in the hotel room writing about his experiences. These writings were the inception of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, which he later typed up in an apartment in Pasadena California.  

The Second Trip, This Time To A Narcotics Conference

Thompson and Acosta. Source: (Pinterest).

Jann Wenner, co-founder and publisher of Rolling Stone, liked his work enough to tentatively schedule it for publication. This encouraged Thompson to continue working on the text. From April 25-29, 1971, Thompson returned to Las Vegas with Acosta to report on the National District Attorneys Association’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs for Rolling Stone. They attended the conference and spent time looking for ways to explore the theme of the American Dream, wandering the city asking random people where the American Dream was located. In 2008, the recordings of these interviews, combined with Thompson and Acosta’s conversations and musings were released as the Gonzo Tapes. Apparently, Acosta didn’t handle being at the Conference with all the authority figures, and really did flip out. Immediately after this, Thompson typed up the full manuscript in his spare time, while completing the text about Salazar from his hotel room in Arcadia, California.   

A Mix Of Fact And Fiction

One of the hotels Thompson stayed at. Source: (Travel Agent Central).

The Las Vegas experiences were joined by what Thompson described as “an essentially fictional framework.” In November 1971, Rolling Stone published both halves, illustrated by Ralph Stedman. Then, in July 1972, Random House published the hardcover version of the book, including additional illustrations by Stedman. The New York Times called the book “by far the best book yet on the decade of dope.”

The book was considered the epitome of gonzo journalism, where fictional storytelling is blended with journalism. The basic plot centered on the story of Raoul Duke, a journalist (Thompson himself) and his attorney Dr. Gonzo (Acosta), as they arrived in Las Vegas to report on the Mint 400, but they are occasionally stymied by their use of recreational drugs. In the book, Gonzo is called a Samoan; Acosta was of Mexican descent and born in El Paso.   

Stretching The Truth About The Drug Use

Source: (ralphsteadman.com).

In Fear and Loathing, Thompson wrote that they brought “two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of [coke], 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.” He also claimed that they used excessive hallucinogens throughout the trip. In reality, Acosta brought a significant quantity of cannabis, and despite Thompson’s claims that they used excessive hallucinogens, they drank a lot of alcohol and Thompson took a lot of Benzedrine, an amphetamine he used to stay awake as he wrote feverishly. The Benzedrine had a side effect of paranoia, which got worse when Acosta left him in Las Vegas to fly home. They did accrue a substantial bill at the hotel, and skipped out on it, but part of his book deal involved paying off the costs of the two visits.

Crawford Woods wrote in the New York Times that the book is "a custom-crafted study of paranoia, a spew from the 1960s and—in all its hysteria, insolence, insult and rot” and that “it unfolds a parable of the nineteen-sixties to those of us who lived in them in a mood—perhaps more melodramatic than astute—of social strife, surreal politics and the chemical feast." 

Turning It Into A Film

Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro in the film. Source: (IMDb).

There were doubts that the book could be made into a movie, but it more than 20 years after publication, Terry Gilliam directed the film and it was released in 1998, with Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke and Benicio del Toro as Dr. Gonzo. and Much of the dialogue in the film was taken directly from the book. Thompson appeared in the film, as did some of his belongings, including his “red shark” convertible, a 1971 Chevrolet Impala. The film did remain relatively faithful to the book and included Depp reading the “wave” passage, a section that gets to the heart of Thompson’s sense of the end of the hippie era. 

The End Of An Era

Source: (Gonzo Today).

In the book, the “wave” passage is at the end of the eighth chapter, and Thompson often cited it and read from it at events. In it, he memorializes the end of an era, saying of the younger and more conscious generation that

Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.…
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Tags: Books | Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas | Hunter S. Thompson

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Cyn Felthousen-Post

Writer

Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!