Andy Roberts is one of the foremost writers and commentators on the history of psychedelia in the UK. There are three books on the subject, which I’d recommend: Albion Dreaming: A popular history of LSD in Britain; Acid Drops: Adventures in Psychedelia; & Divine Rascal: On the Trail of LSD's Cosmic Courier, Michael Hollingshead.
We’re friends on Facebook. Posts usually consist of links to music, films and TV programs, plus general banter around his favorite subject, LSD. A recent one of these included a comment by Jim Silberman to Hunter S. Thompson on the writing of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Silberman is reported to have said: “You know it was absolutely clear to me reading Las Vegas that you were not on drugs.”
This is amusing on a number of levels. Thompson made his name as a drug-fueled journalist. If you can’t believe this basic fact about his writing, then what can you believe? This doubles down on the original joke. You’re not supposed to believe what Thompson writes. Gonzo journalism is meant to be subjective, absurd, exaggerated. It’s designed as a counter to the feigned objectivity of conventional reporting: objective in tone, but layered with the unexamined prejudices of the writer. And yet the idea that it is drug use that fueled the narrative in Thompson’s most successful book is hardly ever questioned.
The famous opening line is explicit: “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” Page two lists the drugs that he was supposedly carrying in the trunk of his car: “We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.”
Is all this fiction? Was he actually straight during the whole process? Back then it would’ve been considered highly contentious that a journalist would go out on assignment with such an array of chemicals at his disposal; these days the shock derives from the possibility that he didn’t.
Silberman knew Thompson well, having published his first book, Hell’s Angels. Thompson’s response to Silberman’s comments take the form of a letter, dated June 15, 1971:
“This is true, but what alarms me is that Vegas was a very conscious attempt to simulate a drug freakout—which is always difficult, but in reading it over I still find it depressingly close to the truth I was trying to re-create.
“But to hell with all this. What depresses me is your statement that it was ‘absolutely clear’ to you that Raoul Duke & his attorney ‘were not on drugs.’ Because my conception of that piece was to write a thing that would tell what it was like to do a magazine assignment with a head full of weird drugs.
“I didn’t really make up anything—but I did, at times, bring situations & feelings I remember from other scenes to the reality at hand. I might even claim, for that matter, that this was done by consciously tripping the fabled LSD Recall and/or Flashback Mechanism.
“But this is a difficult subject, & there’s no point in trying to come to grips with it here. What I’m talking about, in essence, is the mechanical Reality of Gonzo Journalism… or Total Subjectivity, as opposed to the bogus demands of Objectivity.
“But fuck all that, for now.
“All I ask is that you keep your opinions on my drug-diet for that weekend to yourself. As I noted, the nature (& specifics) of the piece has already fooled the editors of Rolling Stone. They’re absolutely convinced, on the basis of what they’ve read, that I spent my expense money on drugs and went out to Las Vegas for a ranking freakout.
“Probably we should leave it this way; it makes it all the more astounding, that I could emerge from that heinous experience with a story. So let’s just keep our personal conclusions to ourselves.”
It’s a testament to Silberman’s integrity that he never revealed the truth and that we only know now because of the publication of Thompson's letters some 30 years later.
One thing that’s clear on re-reading the book is that it’s largely fiction. There are extended passages of invented dialogue, and a number of bit-part characters who enter the pages as cyphers, only there to keep the action going, or perform some ideological role in the text, as “straights” or figures of the establishment. The drugs serve a similar purpose. They’re there to represent an outsider position so that Thompson can reflect upon the insanity of the world he’s observing. Vegas is already crazy. The drug descriptions allow Thompson to pump up the hallucinogenic atmosphere, to create living metaphors for what he views as the destruction of the American Dream. Having people turn into reptiles while wading through carpets soaked with blood is a great image for the rapaciousness of the gambling dens he’s inhabiting.
It’s also, not coincidentally, very funny. Thompson’s giving us a sidelong wink as he evokes these mad images. The drug references are an excuse to make up a series of increasingly absurd scenarios which are there as much for laughs as any observational point. You’re not supposed to believe these stories. He has a specific audience in mind: the young, hip, drug-savvy readers of Rolling Stone, where the piece first appeared in serial form. He’s laughing along with his readers while middle America looks on, horrified.
I’ve said before that all writing is fiction in some senses. What you choose to include and exclude, how you observe and comment upon the events, all of these bring a fictional element into writing. Most of all, the voice you use to write with is a fictional creation. It’s a hero in a novel of your own devising, an extension of the character you carry around who’s continuously justifying its existence by commenting upon the world as it passes by. This applies as much to journalism as it does to drama. Thompson was just the first writer to make this explicit.
In the case of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson gives his fictional narrator a name: Raoul Duke. It’s Duke who is taking all these drugs, doing these dangerous things, having these out-of-control experiences. Duke is Thompson’s alter-ego, his literary persona, his avatar. He first appeared in Hell’s Angels where he's described as an outlaw. He also makes appearances in many of Thompson's subsequent books. Some of the pieces in The Great Shark Hunt, for example, are credited to Duke, including one, “Police Chief,” where he appears as an ex-police chief railing against the lack of adequate armaments for use by the police. This probably reflects Thompson’s own well-known obsession with deadly weaponry.
In the 1978 film Fear and Loathing in Gonzovision Thompson says: "I'm never sure which one people want me to be [Thompson or Duke], and sometimes they conflict... I am living a normal life, but beside me is this myth, growing larger and getting more and more warped. When I get invited to Universities to speak, I'm not sure who they're inviting, Duke or Thompson... I suppose that my plans are to figure out some new identity, kill off one life and start another."
I read a story once—I forget where—about the period immediately following the publication of one of the books, where someone, his editor maybe, suggests that it’s time to put the persona to bed. They say, something like, “You’ve done all that now, isn’t it time to take a break and get on with other things?” Thompson responds by taking out a tab of acid and placing it on his tongue.
Thompson blew his career by not taking his editor’s advice. The drug-fueled mayhem of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a great literary device, but it’s a terrible lifestyle option. Over the years it took its toll until, eventually, Thomson mutated into his alter-ego. Raoul Duke took over from Thompson, as the lifestyle took over from the writing. The writing suffered. He becomes more and more dependent upon alcohol, his most consistent and available drug, while his literary options are limited at the same time. The work becomes self-referential, dependent on his own cliches, the constant repetition of particular words, like “weird” or “crazy,” and the general hyperbolic tone of the text. Eventually the joke wears thin.
Rolling Stone sent him to Zaire to see the Rumble in the Jungle boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in October 1974. He didn’t even go to see the fight. He spent his time floating on his back in his pool at the hotel drinking beer.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas works both as a satire and as a humorous romp through 1970s America. Whether you think it’s fiction or journalism, it says more about the age in which it’s written than almost any other book of the period. The same can’t be said about the movie. The insanity in the book just looks like violence in the film. Duke’s attorney, Dr. Gonzo, played by Benicio Del Toro, is constantly waving guns and knives in people’s faces. It’s true that this happens in the book as well, but it has a different implication in written form. It’s not as threatening precisely because of that side-long wink I mentioned earlier. In the book we read it as a joke. In the film it looks like viciousness and bullying.
The poetic exaggerations of the text give way to parody. We see Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke lurching around in a cartoonish manner, waving his arms and legs about, in a world in which the book’s hallucinations are brought physically to life. This undermines the satire. Instead of seeing the imagery as a comment upon the craziness of the Vegas lifestyle, we’re treated to graphic recreations of Ralph Steadman’s iconic illustrations in costume form, suitably distorted with camera effects. The book serves as an acid-commentary on the state of the world by a great literary raconteur. The film doesn’t. It’s a pointless testament to the self-indulgence of its creators.