Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson

And onto another book on the Ten Favourite Books list: the iconic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, first published in 1971 and which I first read in 1993. Like Brideshead Revisited, Fear and Loathing is one of those books about which there has been so much discussion that I feel I don’t have much to add to the conversation. (Is that the first time those two books have ever been compared to each other?!)

For those few of you who haven’t read it, the book had its genesis in two trips that HST took with lawyer and activist Oscar Acosta to Las Vegas in early 1971. They were there ostensibly to write an article for Sports Illustrated on the Mint 400 desert race, but the trip degenerated (or to my mind, evolved) into an orgy of drugs and insane risk-taking.

It’s the first example of Gonzo journalism, where the journalist does not objectively report on facts but instead becomes a protagonist in the story, and their reactions and emotions form part of the reporting. HST blends fact, fiction and fantasy and it’s up to the reader to distinguish one from the other.

Fear and Loathing has one of the best opening sentences in modern fiction: ‘We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.’

When I first read it at the age of seventeen, my naive little mind was blown. I didn’t know writing could be like this; surreal, vivid, chaotic, open in its discussion of drugs and celebration of hedonism, extremely funny, and incredibly well written. Of course much of the discussion of the breakdown of the American Dream went straight over my young head, but on re-reading it as an adult it’s powerful writing, lamenting the changes in American culture that revolted HST and gave him material for decades.

I have an extensive collection of HST books and I have re-read Hell’s Angels a couple of times as well. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 where he covered the US 1972 presidential campaign is also an amazing piece of journalism.

Here’s a documentary from BBC’s Omnibus series filmed in 1978, which will give you a little flavour of HST in his prime.


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