Lost Boys: Fear & Loathing in the Modern Age
We take a look back at the complicated legacy of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s madcap masterpiece Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas in the wake of its 50th anniversary.
“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…”
As I was tearing it down the dusty roads of the Australian outback with my companion nodding off behind the wheel under the scorching sun, I felt for the first time since I'd arrived back in Oz that I was actually on the ground. My psychological aeroplane was touching down, eased onto the bubbling tarmac with a pick-n-mix cup of Valium, Tanqueray, and Creatine. I fish around my pocket for some loose Adderall, brush off some lint and pop four of the little buggers. My mouth was so dry in this fucking desert that I could barely swallow.
You see, the man next to me claimed he knew my dad, but I don’t believe it. How could he? I hardly knew my own father, and when I asked if he knew him or had just heard of him like everyone else, he’d just bark back “same dog, different leg action” like that was supposed to mean something to me. Maybe it did, because here I am. We ran out of petrol twenty kilometres ago, or huffed it all, so poured our last remaining three litres of ether in the tank and hoped for the best. Honestly, I'd never seen a car go that quick. The radio was bust but other than that it was splendid, the crunch of the gravel under tyre like a sonata in ode to whatever existence you can salvage on this god-forsaken island.
I saw my companion nod off again, so I gave his shoulders a shove. My fingers sponged into his skin as if he was made of melting candle wax. He woke up, screaming that thick bogan banshee scream “your mum’s your dad” as his eyes shot through me with a paranoid glare. Jesus. Oh, Jesus—
I don’t know how much longer I can take doing things I don’t want to do. Edits after edits after edits. Working all day on shit I don’t care about. I end up in my girlfriends flat, where her housemates hate me. I’ll bet they’ll be glad I ran away. I bet my girlfriend, not even that far deep down, will be glad I’m out here in the desert.
What is a dad anyway? Nothing special. Just a poor old man. Just another poor old man with a cock and lust and greed and all that shit — a dad is just a man, not a God or an authority, and the older I get the more I realise that he probably knew he didn’t know anything. And here I am, old enough to be a dad myself, lots of my friends already are, sitting in their suburbs while I’m out here in the dirt looking for answers. Well, did I get any — or is my search as barren as this wasteland?
As my companion next to me nodded off again, I pulled out my notebook and started to scrawl my trip so far. I figured we could crash any minute now, and without any words, this truly would have all been for nothing. I start:
THE SAVAGE JOURNEY.
It is the foul Year of Our Lord, 2022 and I'm siphoning what’s left of the American Dream amidst the last bastion of masculinity. My Instagram feed has been swallowed up by clips of incel daddies Andrew Tate and Jordan Peterson. The legend of HST has now become a legacy – where his lysergic prose poem, first warped by a lost generation of flower children, has now fallen into the privileged void between two heels of a political horseshoe. This generation of men without fathers had to look for father figures in heroes whose morals haven’t stood the test of time – think Morrissey, think Andy Warhol, think David Bowie – and led directly to these saviours who are raping my algorithm off of a hoax (because boys will literally fear and loathe instead of going to therapy).
Hunter S. Thompson is a mythical figure, in part by design, and partly because – as New Journalism peer Norman Mailer (I imagine reluctantly) wrote – he was “a legend in successful self-abuse.” HST’s best work is socially and politically important – both radical and vital – and flies like a wild torpedo through a farrago of free-floating fatalism. But much like everything surrounding HST and the narrative he created around his own persona, it isn’t real. There’s a difference between reality and truth. Like the flashing lights of Las Vegas’ neon Sodom, the lost promises and empty dreams found while cruising stale casinos and in diners open way-past-late are no more true than a full-blown hallucination. They’re real yes, but as hollow as the street façades on a Hollywood backlot. It’s a senseless odyssey. I think everyone has a different favourite HST quote or story, and he probably lost track of the ones that were real and made up even himself. Whilst bombing down a desert road in search of something true, HST found that the only way to glimpse it was through fiction. He’s his own species: too weird to live, too rare to die.
Yet it's perilous to think that gonzo is writing drunk and high till dawn, worshipping at the altar of Hemingway and Mailer, or that you can rip an opinion from an internet troll and flaunt it as fact. Fake news isn’t a new, liberal condition: the guy who invented it was a drug-addled, gun-toting, alleged kidnapper who made a career of writing almost solely about politics. Finding himself on the wrong side of the 1960s, it was the only way Thompson could cope with the chaos of it all. What else do you do when you see Ken Kesey abandon the acid tests and watch Alan Watts drunk, groping young women, when even your gurus have left their morals to the hydra? It's typical for every generation to criticise the last, and to want to see mankind live up to its own ideals, but, as we've established, reality and truth are rarely the same thing.
The world of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas doesn't exist anymore, but it's not unfamiliar. We've had our own Vietnam, our own Nixon, and our own gonzo heroes throttling themselves with the belief that we were so close to a utopian moment. Now those same people bitterly talk about the end of the world, the end of hope. But it's an illusion of the end, just the same as it was an illusion of hope, that we were ever on the verge of some massive transformative point in right and wrong. It's an illusion conjured by nostalgia, and one that should have died in Los Angeles in 1992, or New York in 2001, or any number of times over the last three years (them's just the breaks, I guess).
Even then, steering into the skid is bad advice. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is HST's least overtly – yet most colourfully – political book. It’s a post-mortem of ‘the good old days’ and an autopsy of the shit that killed it, looking back at a time when you could roll into a town with a trunk full of booze and drugs and stumble out of there with everything except money in your bank and your dignity still intact; but would you rather them, or a good story to tell? There’s something to be said for truth-seeking, but I’ve found that it usually leads everyone down the same road and with the same instructions to just take your hands off the wheel and allow the present moment in all its naked glory. If control is freedom, then freedom be damned. That seems to be the American Dream to HST.
I don’t know if I’ll get there, but I bought the ticket, so I may as well just enjoy the ride.