The Mystique of Fear and Loathing

Photo for article The Mystique of Fear and Loathing
Hunter S. Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta, Las Vegas 1971 (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

by Kyle K. Mann

Gonzo Today Contributing Editor and Publisher 

You are behind the wheel of a powerful large red convertible, doped to the gills, speeding through the desert towards Las Vegas on a reporting assignment. But you and your attorney companion have seriously overdosed, and are experiencing numerous unspeakable hallucinations. The only solution: abuse more drugs and keep racing on the endless freeway, faster and even faster. 

The setup is as compelling as anything in the annals of literature and invites the eternal human question: “What Happens Next?”

*****

The greatest accomplishment of Hunter S. Thompson is his exposure of the split in The American Dream.

It’s now understood, a couple decades into the 21st century, that HST first used the phrase “Fear and Loathing” in the early ‘60s in private letter to describe his feelings regarding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

The crucial phrase first appears publicly in the work often identified as the first published example of Gonzo journalism, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.”

That article, the first pairing of illustrator Ralph Steadman and Hunter S.Thompson, set the template for the rest of Thompson’s career. 

By the time of the first publication of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” in Rolling Stone Magazine in 1971, the rosy depiction of The American Dream was in serious decline. The Vietnam War was all but lost, the society from which the war emanated was divided into distinct cultural camps, and the 1950s image of stay-at-home Mom and 9-to-5 Dad was in steep decline. 

Living a “normal” life in the USA was worthless if it made you crazy. Or even crazier.

The inherent right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” doesn’t mean much if, as the ‘60s illustrated, you or a loved one could be drafted against your will, transported to a distant land, and compelled to kill people who had done nothing to you.

Enter Hunter S. Thompson and the essential Ralph Steadman, whose neo-psychedelic art perfectly captured the angst and unease of Thompson’s prose. “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” combines two failed attempts at “covering” in a traditional news writing sense, two essentially meaningless events, a dusty desert motorcycle race and a Vegas convention of district attorneys regarding drugs. 

Las Vegas, Nevada was a far different town in 1971 than it is today, which has become a family-oriented yet bizarre Neo-Disneyland. In the early ‘70s Las Vegas was straight in every sense of the word, a tribute to the old-school values that were being fundamentally challenged elsewhere in the USA. The glitz, the glamor, the sheer aura of power and wonder. The American Dream, indeed.

The image of a flashy guy, beautiful babe by his side and strong drink in hand, scoring a big cash win in Vegas as high-rollers look on approvingly, was still entrenched in the American psyche. What HST and Steadman did so brilliantly was to expose this foolish dream as the claptrap it really was.

What they also accomplished was the first real advance in the image of the road trip, then somewhat stuck in the early ‘50s model laid down by Jack Kerouac in “On the Road.”

Kerouac, an essential influence on Thompson, was a genius at writing with the fatal flaw that often goes with it, drinking. Infected by a moping worldview formed by early religious training and his father’s early death, Kerouac saw writing as therapy that allowed him to examine and come to terms with those who he envied, people who were happy and unapologetic about it.

The marvelous achievement of Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman was that they were able to build on Kerouac’s feverish road dream of something bigger beyond the horizon and flip it, giving us the scary yet somehow amusing vision of something worse ahead: an impossible writing assignment in Las Vegas, an environment reeking of moral decay and eventual doom. 

It would take no less of a master wordsmith than Cormac McCarthy, in yet another quest vision titled with brilliant simplicity “The Road,” to move the literary depiction of the American Dream to its logical conclusion, a lifeless post-apocalyptic landscape virtually devoid of hope.

*****

Hunter S. Thompson died at 67 in 2005. He would have been 84 on July 18, 2021. As Publisher of Gonzo Today dot com, I felt compelled to acknowledge his birthday, two days from today. Happy Birthday you crazy bastard.

Compelled, but not wanting to write. Working for yourself is harder than working for someone else. At least, that’s how I react to it. Add on the fact that I’m going to be 70 next month… Somehow, incredibly, I’m older than Hunter S. Thompson. I’m older, man! What the hell is that?

OK. The dude blew his brains out in despair over his declining health, as I understand it. While my own issues in that department are not nearly as extreme as his were, they do exist. So I have an inkling of what drove him to suicide. And many of my own longtime friends and associates are dead and gone.

The other side of that coin is that I know a surprising number of people older than I am, even decades older, who are still walking, talking and driving… enjoying life and loving it. On we go, then. We must continue.

For many of his longtime fans, the question many of us ask is What Would Hunter Say about the years and events after he left us. We miss his humor and horror, his worldview, his unapologetic slant. He was highly entertaining and educational. We needed him, and still need him.

And that is the best epitaph anyone can ask for.

Kyle K. Mann

Topanga

July 16, 2021

About Kyle K. Mann 74 Articles
Kyle K. Mann is the pen name of a contributor to, and publisher of, Gonzo Today. He lives high atop Topanga, California, where owls hoot and coyotes howl. A radio broadcaster in multiple fields in the 80s and 90s, Kyle sometimes supports himself part time as a Union film crew member in Hollywood. His articles and interviews first appeared in Gonzo Today in early 2015, and some of them are fairly good.