I’ve been busy over at ESPN.com, including pieces on Chris Carpenter going to Boston and the A.J. Burnett trade, plus draft blog posts on Mark Appel, Kenny Diekroger, and Stephen Piscotty; and Luc Giolito and Max Fried.
I’d never read Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas before last week primarily because I was always under the mistaken impression that it was a work of non-fiction, a magazine article or series of them expanded to book length. I’m sure most of you know that that impression was wrong, as it’s a novel, inspired by actual events and probably by actual drugs, but largely the product of Thompson’s expansive imagination and, in his own words, a “fantasy.”
The novel is often categorized as one of the earliest examples of “Gonzo journalism,” where the writer involves himself in the event or feature he’s covering. (In a related story, I’ll be throwing the sixth inning for the Rangers on Friday.) Thompson (as “Raoul Duke”) and his lawyer (“Dr. Gonzo”) scam their way through two dubious assignments in Las Vegas, one covering the Mint 400 off-road race, the other covering a conference of district attorneys to discuss the scourge of recreational drugs. They never even see the race beyond the starting pistol, spending more time running around Vegas getting into trouble, while their involvement in the Drug Conference is largely limited to scaring the crap out of a rural DA whose district hasn’t yet seen much action. Most of the novel is about these guys ingesting various substances and acting under their influence with often hilarious results.
I’m of two minds about the book. As a comic novel, a satire, or merely a piece of entertainment, it’s brilliant. The book reads like an unending con job, an Ocean’s 11 for people who are OK with having their fictional con men look like actual crooks. These two knuckleheads trash rental cars and hotel rooms, charge everything to their hotel accounts, and consume absurd quantities of drugs, taking one drug to ease the effect of coming down off another, and drinking heavily all the while. (Which makes me wonder how anyone could think this was all true. If Thompson survived ingesting all of these chemicals, would he actually remember anything that what happened afterwards?) A maid sees something she probably shouldn’t, so Thompson/Duke cooks up a scam on the spot threatening her with arrest, then turning her into an informant, which the gullible woman buys wholesale because she’s as greedy as the next American.
Where it lost me slightly was in its social commentary aspect, which probably just went past me as someone who was born two years after the book was published. The novel’s subtitle, “A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream,” sets out up front that said journey isn’t going to be pretty, and it seems like Thompson’s intent was to put the lie to the common notion of the American Dream. In probably the funniest passage in the book, these two drug-addled idiots seek out “the American Dream” and are directing to a bar by that name, only to find that it burned down a few years earlier, the sort of symbolism that threatens to jump off the page and slap you in the face. (Your symbolism meter might break with all of the novel’s references to sharks and, eventually, to a car the characters nickname the “great white whale.”) They infiltrate the Drug Conference, already high, while privately mocking how far behind the times the attorneys and cops are, yet also realizing that the halcyon days of recreational drug use are over, losing its proponents to Vietnam, capitalism, and the effects of excessive consumption. But since the book’s publication, we’ve seen two economic booms (and busts), a growing wealth gap, massive changes in societal attitudes towards drugs, and a pretty big image overhaul for Vegas itself. The book’s humor remains, but I think the immediacy of its message has faded with time. Or perhaps I’m just sufficiently jaded that the book couldn’t have the same impact on me that it might have fifteen or twenty years ago.
Next up: I’m about two-thirds of the way through Wilkie Collins’ 1868 novel The Moonstone, regarded as the first detective novel, praised by writers from T.S. Eliot to G.K. Chesterton to Dorothy Sayers.