Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: Following the 1960s Counter-culture


Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a 1971 semi-autobiography by Hunter S. Thompson. The novel has made introduced to the adventure genre in a new style through several modifications to the conventional elements of the genre, mainly combining journalism and adventure. Hunter S. Thompson was an American journalist and author, he was also known for his lifelong use of alcohol and illegal substances. The representation of Thompson’s world is widely induced by his consumption of various drugs used in and out of the novel. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was originally a two-part series that was published in the Rolling Stone magazine and introduced a new form of journalism known as Gonzo Journalism, which is a type of journalism that includes the reporter as a first-person narrative. The novel follows Raoul Duke and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo as they attempt to find the American dream in Las Vegas through their altered drug-induced perceptions of the world around them as they are sent there to report the course of a motorcycle race. This semi-autobiography depicting Thompson’s adventures with his attorney in Las Vegas is well known for its explicit descriptions of illegal drug use and its outlook on the failure of the 1960s counter-culture.

All the substances taking part in this novel bring out a specific altered state of mind to the narrator who describes his adventure as he sees it, unaware of the reader’s factual understanding of the supernatural events that take place. Therefore, the genre being explored by Thompson is constantly altered in order to follow the narrator’s perspective of the world surrounding him, transforming what is meant to be a reported story about a motorcycle race into what eventually becomes an epic adventure. The question I will be asking in search for understanding of this novel’s greatness is: In what ways does Hunter S. Thompson represent the artificially induced perceptions of the world around him through a reinvention of the adventure genre?

In part one, we’ll analyze how Hunter S. Thompson transcribed the conventions of the adventure genre into his drug-induced world. Then I will move on to a discussion about the emptiness of the novel’s plot if it were not to include the use of illegal drugs. Afterward, we will take a look at the importance of the aspect of unreliability in the narration. Finally, I will conclude my argumentation by connecting the madness of the protagonists with their perceptions of the world around them.

The conventions of the genre:

As aforementioned, Thompson modified various elements of the adventure genre for its fitting to his drug-altered environment. Conventional adventure novels often have action-packed plotlines, brave protagonists, detestable antagonists, and a rewardable achievement for closure. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas revised the set of the rules and created a hybrid and original genre which has the ability to diverge from the action-packed plotlines while still yet keeping the reader and entertained and captivated with the story and characters, how did Thompson do it? To start with, instead of filling the story with imminent dangers and emotions induced by the external world, Thompson decided to create tension and fear directly inside of his protagonists’ minds. 

“Goddamn, it’s serious now. That girl understood she fell in love with me.” 

He manages to create minds so distorted from reality they make up their own action-packed plotline. They create an adventure where there is none. Throughout the entire novel, the reader is supposedly constantly scared at the idea of the two protagonists getting caught by the police. The whole text is constantly aims at rising the tension for that specific event. However, the closest encounter they actually had with the law was for a speeding ticket that they got away with. Most of the fear and panic felt throughout the novel are widely induced by Duke’s own persuasive mind of certain events that are not happening; therefore, there is no literal “action” but the reader is supposed to feel like so.

The typical brave protagonists coming out of trivial adventure stories are far from how Thompson wrote his novel. Duke and Gonzo are not made to especially show audacity due to the lack of events needing such courage, they are created just brave enough to fight the wrath of their own demons. The only danger they are facing is their own mind and how many tricks it’s able to trigger. Events like the casino and the hotel scenes show a striking contrast between what Duke sees and what people see of him; this can reassure the reader by reminding him of the unaltered view the public has of the protagonists, which is close to the readers.

Another interesting element that characterizes Thompson’s adaptation of the adventure genre is the eventful goal attempted to be reached at the end of adventure novels. In this book, there are no triumphs or tragedies, no murders and none of the protagonists gets arrested for their highly suspicious behaviors and incriminated belongings; the closest the novel got to those events was the encounter Duke had with the law on a highway, which eventually resulted in a simple speeding ticket. 

“What were we doing out here? What was the meaning of this trip? Was I just roaming around these Mint hotels escalators in a drug frenzy of some kind, or had I really come out here in Las Vegas to work on a story.” 

Their original goal was to write a story about a motorcycle race, however, it seems clear they weren’t directly intending to do such in the correct manner considering their uncontrollable use of hard drugs.

The antagonists in this novel are not particularly immoral or evil. Duke’s foe is the law, and he’s trying to avoid it at all times. Some could argue the roles were inverted; Duke and his attorney are actually anti-heroes, central characters lacking conventional heroic attributes. They also are attempting to fight their own minds throughout the entirety of the novel, which makes the typical enemy trying to stop the conventional hero from getting to his goal to be their own altered minds.

“We can’t stop here, this is bat country!” 

The protagonists in this novel create their own events and adventures based on their own heavily altered perceptions of the world and through their delirious drug consumption, they manage to invent for themselves an adventure only they will ever get to live through; an intricate journey primarily aimed at understanding the core elements of the American Dream.

The emptiness of the novel:

The best thing about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the fact that nothing actually takes place, no goals are particularly achieved. According to William Rosé Benét, this genre that Thompson created “deals sympathetically with the adventures of clever and amusing rogues”.

The problem is that the rogues aren’t especially clever and they don’t actually accomplish much roguery except creating a mess in some hotel rooms or scaring bystanders. Two middle-aged intoxicated men come to Las Vegas to frighten some tourists and are rude to cleaning ladies.

 “Fear and Loathing is a bloodcurdling adventure where no one is murdered, robbed imprisoned, or hanged. But Hunter is such a genius that it’s a thrilling saga.” 

Says P.J.O'Rourke, while writing The C.E.O. of the Sofa. Rourke has the right words to describe how truly amazing the emptiness of the plot is in this specific novel. It’s so amazing because Thompson manages to add another layer of complexity to the story by having the characters be so far from reality, which was enough to keep the reader entertained and attempting to imagine what parts are actually happening and what is just the result of very complex and absurd thought processes from the protagonists.

The characters themselves are also interesting since we directly get to see the deepest parts of their minds and also each of their “ugly” sides. Thompson doesn’t try to make the heroes any prettier than they truly are, they don’t particularly have the “right” mindset and ideologies, compared to the rest of the population. The characters are very raw and their thoughts are for the reader himself to judge upon. Thompson doesn’t idealize his protagonists as heroes, on the contrary, he attempts to make his characters relatable in an odd way, where as the reader explores the horrors someone’s mind can bring on, they could feel better about themselves and their own unpleasant side.

Understanding how deep a person can discover their mind can intrigue a reader in trying to dive deeper in their personality and their extremes. It’s important to think that if the protagonists in this novel weren’t under the influence of so many different substances, each with different effects and outcomes on their minds; and were left alone with the plotline itself, a story about two men going to Las Vegas to report a motorcycle race’s course would only attract the motorcycle fans perhaps, but no more. The exploration of those two characters’ extremes and seeing them try to achieve certain objectives while fighting with their own selves is the “adventure” that has entertaining properties to the reader.

“Thompson’s adventures in Las Vegas are chaotic not because of him but because of us because this is the monument we have built to our prurience and half-articulated desires. In such a landscape, Thompson comes across as the most honest person around.” 

States David L. Ulin in an article for Nieman Storyboard. He uses the word “chaotic”, however, it could be replaced by “wonderful”, it is because of the reader that the story is entertaining. The plot itself once again is not so attractive and the story is very raw, the reader is attracted due to their “half-articulated desires”. As Ulin says, Thompson is just being extremely honest with every event in his story, he explains how the protagonists felt and how they truly were acting. The possibility that Gonzo took advantage of that underage girl is unknown because he honestly did not remember, Thompson wouldn’t try to make a character look better than he truly is by covering up parts of his adventures.

“In a closed society where everybody's guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity.”

Thompson defends himself as a criminal by blaming society’s strictness on the people’s freedom rights. Using the word “closed” provides a sense of community, as if society was only accepting a certain kind of human being complying to their rules and if they don’t, they become criminals or outsiders. He states that “everybody’s guilty’ because he assumes that since the law is so strict, everyone must be breaking the law constantly and so the law they would have to be respected was not to get caught by the authorities. Then he goes on with parallelism by mentioning that “in a world of thieves”, as is the world that we supposedly are living in according to him, “the only final sin is stupidity”, which clearly emphasizes the point he is trying to make by referring to a crime as a “sin”.

Thompson’s honesty with every event in his story could, however, hold a double meaning, because his altered truth could fool the reader and it’s by this means that he turns an empty story into an epic adventure. This style of storytelling could find similarities with the Quixotic Adventure as both protagonists are telling their story truthfully, with a degree of unreliability that impacts the story’s course of events.

The unreliability of the narrator:

One of the most originally absurd elements Thompson added in order to alter the adventure genre was the telling of the untrustworthy narrator. This sympathetic first-person narrator constantly under influence brings the reader closer as they are desperately wanting him to not get caught so the story goes on. Thompson directly announces to the reader for them to be aware of the potential influence the drugs can have on the narrative. They are in constant doubt on the factuality of the story, while transforming the story into a magical trip into how extreme their minds can go. The reader must construct their own reality to stay sane and not be entirely lost through all of the doubt. The readers’ responsibility in these texts forces them to make sense of how and why the narrator interprets the world as he does, through warped senses and strong personal feelings.

The distinction between Thompson and the narrator must be noticed; the generally used term “narrator” is a fabricated persona created by the author, however in this case he wishes to portray himself but fictionalize his character to create a sense of immediacy and therefore of adventure. Wolfe claims that Thompson “usually casts himself as a frantic loser, inept and half-psychotic”. He does so in order to display his potential alter-ego where he can truly be himself and do things that he might have not dared to do but still wanted to expose in his novels. Thompson makes it so that Duke’s emotions are continually dominating the story’s point of view using first-person narration. However, that doesn’t get Thompson too far from his character; as an example, the entirety of chapter 9 is literally transcribed from a tape they recorded throughout his trip with his attorney.

McKeen, one of Thompson’s biographers, emphasizes that he sees Duke as “an enhanced version of reality”. He can be seen as the character/narrator while representing an exaggerated version of Thompson. This novel is made for readers that have the patience for an unreliable narrator, that understand the journalistic point of view, and are fine with the story going in tangents about situations that may or may not have happened in reality. 

“I was no longer seeing huge pterodactyls lumbering around the corridors in pools of fresh blood.”

Duke seeing such things in the corridors is evidently part of the reader's experience and Thompson is aiming at forcing the reader to dive with him into the darkness his mind can provide. People that are capable of looking passed the giant lizards and the lava floor; with the help of this subjective point of view, are therefore able to take a closer look at Duke’s character’s psyche. It allows the reader to get an inside view of the character’s true self by putting him in situations where the drugs can only bring out what his mind itself feels the need to bring out. It is not because he sees giant lizards that he is going crazy, but maybe that he feels intimidated by the people around him, and his inner-self is already familiar with giant lizards being intimidating.

Duke and Gonzo are living through a picaresque kind of narrative centered on protagonists who identify as picaros or rogues, they critique and mock the society which they refuse to take part in. 

“The picaresque character is not merely a rogue, and his chaos of personality is greater than any purely moral chaos. It reflects a total lack of structure in the world, not merely a lack of ethical or social structure”,

 proposes Stuart Miller in his novel The Picaresque Novel. Thompson’s personality is definitely supposed to represent the source of all the chaos in the novel. Duke wouldn’t be harassing people in the streets with his attorney if they didn’t plan on initially messing around in Las Vegas, the drugs didn’t force that on the plot, Thompson did, to express something he wasn’t able to without the consumption of those substances. A lack of ethical or social structure merely because Thompson himself wrote this novel to state that he doesn’t want to live by the rules, he goes against society following the 1960’s counterculture and goes on a quest to denounce the imperfections of society.

07 July 2022
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