The reprobate we love to loathe

Hunter S Thompson emerges from underneath a crumpled American flag mumbling incoherently. He lifts himself from the floor to survey his vast hotel suite and begins to stagger through the flooded room wiggling the enormous crocodile tale he has tapped to his bum. Clutching a small statue in his arms, with a microphone and a cigarette holder tapped to his face he traverses the psychedelic debris, pink balloons, rainbow bulbs and fluorescent strip lights glowing all around him. He passes a make-shift shrine to Debbie Reynolds, moaning her name, before the camera cuts to a giant purple stuffed elephant wearing a fez. A photo of Richard Nixon has been pinned to the wall surrounded by knives and darts, ketchup and mustard ooze from the holes in the plaster. He makes it into a bedroom to find a smoking crater in the bare mattress and ‘He Lives’ daubed in giant red letters above the head board. His ‘attorney’ begins howling from the corner of the room before smashing a mirror with his fist. In the toilet Thompson discovers a pair of grotesque porcelain legs sticking upright from the toilet bowl. He removes them and begins pissing on a gun lurking beneath the brown water. Outside the toilet his attorney is on all fours in front of a giant stuffed toy soldier violently vomiting.

This is the cinematic depiction of a scene from Thompson’s infamous book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. ‘The general back alley ambience of the suite was so rotten, so incredibly foul’ he says, what could be the meaning of this filth?

The book is a masterpiece in human hideousness, bending and breaking the linear narrative of normal life through ‘excessive consumption of almost every drug known to civilised man.’ Thompson’s partly fictionalised alter ego Raoul Duke has been commissioned to cover the Mint 400, a desert off road race, but journalism quickly becomes subordinated to the enjoyment of Las Vegas’s finer pleasurers much distorted through hard core narcotics. This unashamed excess may seem familiar to those who have encountered the Beat literature of the 1950s. The same psychedelic hysteria can be found in Burroughs’s Naked Lunch and the road trip with drugs motif is central to Kerouac’s On the Road. However, Fear and Loathing was in many ways a departure. Whilst Naked Lunch can be seen as a musing on the sickness of addiction Thompson says that his antics were ‘not the hoofprints of your normal, god fearing junkie. It was too savage, far too aggressive’ and Kerouac’s jazz bars and deserted railroads are a far cry from Thompson’s lurid casinos and trashed hotel suites.

The book attacks the ugly absurdity of the American Dream, whilst also showing the degeneration of 1960s countercultural idealism. ‘A vile epitaph’ he called it. The horror of consumerist reality is made properly apparent through its hallucinogenic exaggeration, greasy diners that make ‘your brain start humming with brutal vibes as you approach the front door.’ The books aggressive mania reveals the dark side of the romanticised vision of ‘drop acid not bombs’ youth culture. A vicious drunkard screams ‘Woodstock Uber Alles!’ on the floor of a bizarre circus casino, where county-fair carnival madness goes on just above the heads of the haggard gamblers, who do not seem to notice or care. Placing Nazi slogans alongside the foremost event of the 1960s countercultural movement goes epitomises Thompson’s brutal bastardisation of these ideals.  But the work itself is more than just a social comment. It is also a statement on the nature of journalism.

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Although he was primarily a journalist Thompson produced this piece of partly fictionalised first person narrative and with it the foremost work of what would become known as ‘gonzo’ journalism. The way he writes has traces of journalistic style to it. It is often lumped in the same camp as Kerouac’s stream of consciousness prose but in fact is far more direct than this. He doesn’t mess around with metaphor or spirituality, but states his madness as it is, ‘after a while you learn to cope with things like seeing your dead grand-mother crawling up your leg with a knife in her teeth.’ Fear and Loathing did begin as a piece of journalism, paid $ 250 to cover Nevada’s Mint 400 by Sports Illustrated Thompson had headed with his drug fiend lawyer to Las Vegas. However, the 15,000 word piece he submitted, ten times the size of the originally commission, was firmly rejected. It wasn’t at home in the pages of a conventional magazine like Sports Illustrated, but it was eventually published by Rolling Stone and later as the book.Thompson is firmly enmeshed in the events that are unfolding, an involved chronicler of partly fictionalised experience. In producing a work like this while remaining nominally a journalist Thompson was damningly indicting what he called the ‘bogus objectivity’ of conventional journalism. Ralph Steadman’s distinctive cartoons accompany the book rather than photos of the lit up streets of Las Vegas. Rather than write an essay or an article on the death of the American dream or the 1960s counterculture movement Thompson wanted to show it dying violently in a chaotic whirlwind of personal prose. The confines of conventional journalism wouldn’t accommodate the force of his angry message. The utter commitment to ugly depravity on every page may seem to some like a throwaway paper obscenity, with no purpose other than to provoke. But, the way he goes about expressing his subject matter is a hysterical laugh in the face of the suggestion that journalism can ever be objective, a laughter that seems very relevant in the face of modern media pretence at neutrality. No doubt Thompson would be appalled at the quiet timidity of much modern reportage. Ugly degeneration is just a part of the picture as it ever was. Maybe journalism needs more disrespectable reprobates. Only his depraved experiences and imaginations could properly capture the essence of his epigraph, that ‘he who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.’