Fifty years ago, Hunter S. Thompson published a two-part story in Rolling Stone that changed the face of American culture. “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” was an instantaneous hit – a groundbreaking satire that was both a eulogy for the sixties counterculture and an uproarious road novel that had readers bawling with laughter from the first page to the last.
It was also a landmark in drug literature and remains to this day perhaps the most famous “drug book” ever written. Fear and Loathing (published as a book some eight months later) broke the mold by presenting drugs neither clinically nor spiritually. They were, instead, the fuel that drove a manic search for the American Dream and a device through which one could view the absurdity of Las Vegas. From beginning to end, there is not a moment in the novel when at least one of the protagonists – Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo – is not completely twisted on some kind of mind-bending substance.
It is perhaps surprising, then, that the real journeys to Las Vegas that Thompson and his friend, Oscar Zeta Acosta, took were in fact rather tame by comparison. Indeed, the famed pharmacopeia in the truck of their “Great Red Shark” was a figment of Thompson’s prodigious imagination:
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.
When working on the book in mid-1971, Thompson wrote his editor, Jim Silberman, to say that he had not actually indulged in any drugs during the first of his two trips to Vegas, but that he had instead drawn upon other experiences with drugs, mining his memories in order to layer hallucinatory images upon a somewhat realistic account of his drunken cavorting with Acosta. He was, however, keen to keep up the illusion that he and his alter ego, Duke, were not so different:
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.
But was it really true that there were no drugs consumed? Whilst his first trip to Vegas was fueled largely by alcohol, the latter saw the two men return with a bag of weed and some pills. Thompson roamed around in search of ether, but his quest was unsuccessful, and of course there did not take any adrenochrome… Perhaps most interestingly, despite several references to cocaine in the book, he only tried this particular drug for the first time in 1973, having previously viewed it as “a drug for fruits.”
It is clear, then, that the drug use depicted in Fear and Loathing was primarily imagined and in some cases grossly exaggerated. There were various reasons, including Thompson’s wish to highlight the ostentatiousness of Las Vegas, but he also did it in part to stroke his own ego. He was an outlaw in his own mind and he needed the world to see that. He complained in public about being confused with Raoul Duke, yet always took efforts to play up that role, and was always coy with interviewers who asked the inevitable question: “What really happened in Las Vegas?”
Thompson’s hero, Ernest Hemingway, once wrote that “If a man is making a story up it will be true in proportion to the amount of knowledge of life that he has and how conscientious he is; so that if he makes something up it is as it truly would be,” and certainly Thompson was no neophyte when it came to mind-altering substances. Indeed, he had used acid frequently in the mid-sixties when living in San Francisco and was also an occasional smoker of marijuana. He had even tried mescaline in 1969 and one of his 1970 campaign promises when running for sheriff near Aspen was that he would not eat mescaline whilst on duty. He saw great value in these substances and believed wholeheartedly in the individual’s right to use them, but he disagreed with the likes of Tim Leary, whom he criticized in Fear and Loathing and elsewhere for misleading a generation with his phony acid spiritualism.
To Hunter, drugs were fun and, in certain circumstances, they were fuel. The right combination of them could calm you down, keep you going, or give you inspiration. In terms of writing, however, he found them more of a liability. Back home in Woody Creek, Colorado, he drew upon memories from Vegas, fantasies he had scrawled on napkins, and drug flashbacks to his days in San Francisco in the mid-sixties, tying them all together at his trusty typewriter with little more than bourbon and Dexedrine to fuel him.
At this point, Thompson was an incredibly hard-working writer and labored over each sentence he wrote. He felt that weed made him sloppy and that writing on anything stronger was for purely experimental purposes. Drawing upon all his other drug experiences in the relative sobriety of his home, he was able to produce his warped vision of fornicating lizards and lumbering pterodactyls. He did not just replicate and exaggerate his own drug visions; he even manipulated the rhythm of the text to induce in his reader a sense of disorientation, mimicking the effects of the drugs he described. Ultimately, he was successful in crafting a revolutionary piece of literature. It was the most brilliant book on acid ever written, yet it was not written on acid at all. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was a testament to Thompson’s literary abilities, his life experiences, and – oddly enough – his restraint. It was a polished, complex piece of work that has been unfairly dismissed as a clownish and adolescent novel. Fifty years later, it remains the finest example of drug literature and indeed one of the shining beacons of the American counterculture.