The first paragraph is such a great opener and the book doesn’t really lose that momentum until halfway in, when the first round of drugs begin to wear off.
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive…” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”
Last summer, I read The Rum Diary, in which Thompson’s alter ego Paul Kemp works for a paper in Puerto Rico, but spends most of his time drinking rum with ice and getting too close to the girlfriend of an incredibly hench friend of his. Between diving for lobster, dancing at a carnival and getting into fights with the locals, Thompson reflects on growing old (Paul Kemp is 30, and although Thompson was 22 at the time, he felt his dreams of becoming a writer had stalled.)
Like most of the others, I was a seeker, a mover, a malcontent, and at times a stupid hell-raiser. I was never idle long enough to do much thinking, but I felt somehow that my instincts were right. I shared a vagrant optimism that some of us were making real progress, that we had taken an honest road, and that the best of us would inevitably make it over the top. At the same time, I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between these two poles - a restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other - that kept me going.
In Fear and Loathing…, Paul Kemp has been replaced by Raoul Duke and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo, and they’re in search of the American Dream. If you’ve seen the Terry Gilliam film you might be surprised to learn that, despite all its visual weirdness, for the most part the film is incredibly faithful to the novel. The descriptions of drug-taking are far removed from the lame hazy psychedelic cliches of, say, ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ by the Beatles. They’re so real and so fun that the book stalls a little when Duke sobers up.
Thompson’s hell-raising anecdotes are shot through with original and unmediated reflection. The anecdotes pull you through the story, and the reflection gives it meaning. Despite his affected, myth-making style, he gets closer to the truth than most ‘straight’ journalists could ever hope to.
Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality. Weird heroes and mould-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of ‘the rat race’ is not yet final.