“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”
And so begins the first sentence to Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal 1971 book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, a book, which give or take a few missed opportunities, I have endeavoured to read once a year since first picking it up at the tender age of 19. As I’m now heading, rattling and aching, towards my mid-thirties, the book has stayed with me for over a decade, and on every read I discover a new angle or interpretation that expands its meaning.
Fear and Loathing holds an almost mythic quality in its mix of Gonzo reportage, drug frenzies and soulful meditation of the Sixties’ generation of America. It reflects the loss of a utopia and chronicles its spiral into violence and mass cultural sell-out. Much in the same way, the film Easy Rider (dir. Dennis Hopper, 1969), on the cusp of a new decade, pointed towards a shedding of the sixties vision of the American Dream and replaced it with a rendering of an overbearing capitalist interpretation that was obsessed with status and money. Both texts paint a grim picture of what it was like to live in those transitional times.
However, before Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas even delves into this schism, it is those opening lines that first grab me. I fully expect them, yet am always utterly surprised when they appear at the top of the page. I savour them every time I reread the book, before diving head first into the collision of overreaching madness, laugh-out-loud hysteria and aching beauty that lies ahead. To me, those eighteen words say more than stating simple geography and the impending drug wave that will grip the two strange individuals of Thompson’s alter ego and narrator, Raoul Duke, and his Samoan companion Dr. Gonzo, a thinly disguised Oscar Zeta Acosta, whose exploits the book will unravel.
They scream like a declaration of intent, as if the reader has just jumped into an already unfolding narrative and has missed some important specifics; the narrator bawls the only feasible line he can fathom that will inform the reader what they have missed and where they are now. Of course, this is actually the case; the introduction of the young hitchhiker on page five will allow for a brief interlude of recollection. It is here that Duke will conveniently fill in the gaps about the imperative assignment given to him twenty-four hours previously to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race, an assignment that has been interpreted by the two protagonists as the pursuit of the American Dream.
The “edge of the desert” states a geographic point, as they hurtle down a lonely highway on the outskirts of Las Vegas, but another reading of this could be that the “edge” is not only that of the desert, but the edge of Duke and Gonzo’s sanity and normality as they enter the nightmarish neon hell that is Las Vegas and tip over the boundary into sudden and absolute madness. After this first sentence, the narrative takes a sudden and distressing downward turn.
The drugs kick in and all notions of the real and unreal are blurred into one long drug paranoia that persists throughout the rest of the book. These are not the drugs of the sixties that promoted an expansion of the mind, a state of human comradeship, and a loving buzz. The items in Duke and Gonzo’s possession are dangerous narcotics including cocaine, ether, and mescaline, which taken together are a brain-frying cocktail designed to trigger insanity and despair.
The first sentence is the only statement that, as far as we can tell, is factual. After all the next line reads “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….” Not only does this sentence begin the book long episode of hallucinations and delirium that Duke will encounter on his travels around Las Vegas’ purgatory casinos, it also indicates by the line “I remember…” that this text is written after the events have already occurred. Maybe days, perhaps weeks, possibly even years have passed; therefore what lies ahead in the book cannot be presumed as a factual account, but rather strung-together fragments of events that linger like broken reels of film and audio in Thompson’s hazy mind.
The original book jacket of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas illustrated the coarse nature of the text via a grotesque caricature by English illustrator Ralph Steadman. The image is of Duke and Gonzo spewing and sweating their way across the desert towards the pristine outer shell of Las Vegas, a gleaming palace wall that hides behind it as much debauchery and sin as Duke and Gonzo can muster in themselves. The image perfectly captures the opening salvo of the book, even though the road, the car, the speed in which they are travelling, the peacock-coloured attire they have adorned themselves in, has yet to be revealed, as the reader we understand from the cover art that these lines are being drawn from a high speed, Technicolor, shot across the hot desert, not a stationary situation.
When film director Terry Gilliam adapted the book for the big screen in 1998 he must have had the same sequence running in his head as the reader did. As Johnny Depp’s booming narration of the opening line unfolds, the Great Red Shark zooms past along the boiling desert highway. In terms of adaptation, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas the film is incredibly loyal to the source material. Its narrative is taken almost page-for-page, except for a few minor twists and adjustments for cinematic purposes. While, for me, it never fully catches the verve and intensity of the original book, it does come dangerously close. Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ highly controversial 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange used the same technique towards a wicked and violent film. Thompson’s fragmented narratives are still simply too loose and wild to condition to a two-hour linear framework. This fate also befell Where the Buffalo Roam (dir. Art Linson, 1980), which starred the excellent Bill Murray as a note-perfect Duke/Thompson, but in a film that tried to pull to many of Thompson’s Gonzo experiences together and made for a fragmentary viewing experience. Even Thompson’s relatively straightforward fictional work The Rum Diary (dir. Bruce Robinson, 2011) failed to translate its youthful vigour and sexiness to the big screen. The short seconds that fill the first scene of Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing adaptation is perfect synchronicity, and if despite what follows often falls flat, it offers the same adrenaline rush as reading the lines.
To my mind, there are only a few dozen books that can be immortalized forever within the first breath, even before a reader has had a chance to finish the first paragraph. Jane Austen pulled if off it in Pride and Prejudice, and Allen Ginsberg’s most memorable line in his epic poem Howl is the first. But, within contemporary fiction, even the modern classics are often only half-remembered in fragments. With Fear and Loathing, a book crammed full with memorable phrases, howlers, screamers, scenes, and sentences, it’s the opening lines that seem to clearly define the entire book and its cultural documentation. I will continue to revisit Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for many years to come and revel in its sheer lunacy, and those opening lines I will continue to relish.