Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

Let me tell you a story. This’ll make you roar with laughter. One time, oh it was years ago, when I was a callow youth who knew no better, I had some wonderful magic mushroom soup and spent the entire evening talking to someone who wasn’t there. Hey, isn’t that a funny story? Hell, yes. And the funniest thing of all is that I know it happened while I was in St Andrews but I have no idea what I was doing there in the first place! Ha ha ha! I don’t remember a thing because I was stoned out of my brain! Isn’t that an absolute hoot?

Oh, wait a minute. There’s something wrong. No-one is laughing at my very funny reminiscence. That’s odd – it’s priceless, it makes me laugh like a drain every time. Why isn’t anybody else laughing?

Ah yes, I realise why now. Because someone else’s trip is basically not interesting. In fact, somebody else’s trip is basically very boring. It’s one of those situations when you really do have to be there. It doesn’t work in retrospect. It doesn’t work in the telling. Everything is either just manic stupidity or mundane paranoia. It’s happening in their heads and there’s no way of making it seem like it’s happening in anyone else’s. There’s no way in for the observer. All you can do is watch someone else rattle about like a maniac. Reading about someone else’s trip is one of the most pointless exercises known to man.

And so we come to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which is a one-note, two-hundred page exercise in manic ego-stoking and about as interesting as a routine shit on a dull December day. Taken in isolation, no end of the episodes related in this novel are brilliantly written – witty, inventive, excoriating – but essentially they are all the same. Every single scene boils down to Duke and his attorney being stoned out of their minds and either euphoric or paranoid. There’s only so much of it you can take, and two hundred pages is way, way, way more than that limit.

I wouldn’t mind if the whole thing wasn’t so fraudulent. If it really were just two hundred pages of tripping I could accept it but repeatedly Thompson tries to justify this banal brain fuck by trying to invest some false moral sense in his work. The result is shallow. It is trite. And it is, ultimately, offensive. I’m not one to judge, and if someone chooses to spend his life out of his head on a crazy cocktail of illegal drugs, good on him, I say. I don’t much care either way. But when he starts trying to justify himself with sermons on Vietnam and the abuse of authority and the sad failure of sixties idealism, then I believe he exposes himself as a charlatan. And this is what Hunter S. Thompson does.

For example, while sitting in a Las Vegas hotel Duke chances on a newspaper, which allows Thompson the totally fabricated addition of a wired report from Vietnam about GI drug deaths, juxtaposed against a photo of Washington cops fighting anti-war demonstrators and another article on torture tales from war hearings. Reading of all these state-sponsored crimes “made me feel a lot better,” Duke tells us. “Against that heinous background, my crimes were pale and meaningless.” For someone who has heretofore shown no sense of public duty or interest in current affairs to use such news stories as a vehicle for justifying his own worthless meanderings is cheap in the extreme.

Near the end, after 170 pages of self-indulgence, Thompson makes another attempt to portray the establishment as corrupt and therefore beneath the purity of his own stoner vision. He introduces a character who proceeds to tell of his arrest and confinement in Las Vegas for vagrancy. “No phone call. No lawyer. No charge.” Oh my! How scandalous! Unfortunately it sounds completely bogus, the bellowing of faux outrage from a writer devoted merely to solipsistic hedonism.

And shortly after Thompson excels himself in hypocrisy with his rant against the bastions of authority. ’The Pope, The General, The Prime Minister... all the way to “God.”’ He laments the death of the sixties, the loss of its Youth Movement in the face of the Maharishi and Altamont and Manson and the failure of Ginsberg and Kesey to persuade the Hell’s Angels into an alliance with the left. All of this makes me want to puke, frankly. It’s sanctimonious bullshit and I can’t credit that Thompson believes a word of it. A savage journey to the heart of the American dream, he subtitles this work. Maybe so, but only in his trip, I fear. And as I said at the start, someone else’s trip is non-transferable and, ultimately, boring.

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