There's a look people get if you mention Hunter S. Thompson's seminal work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It's usually a bit of a wink or smirk followed by a comment about the rampant and reckless use of illicit substances. Somebody inevitably mentions Johnny Depp. A few more chuckles ensue, and it's understood that if anyone wants to talk serious literature, they must leave the Kentucky-born Thompson behind.
Not so fast. Any conversation about Fear and Loathing — which the Carnegie Center will celebrate Saturday, Nov. 7 — must at some point address a nagging question: Why do so many Americans continue to read and re-read this book more than 40 years after its publication?
To tackle that question, let's start with the road trip. Let's admit how many times we nine-to-fivers daydream about jumping into our cars and driving off into our new lives. Fear and Loathing takes something of that trip for us (literally and figuratively). We're invited along to make poor decisions and to experience the romanticized allure of Vegas. And thanks to Thompson's first-person, stream-of-consciousness vernacular, which he called Gonzo journalism, it's almost too easy to become a passenger in that rented Great Red Shark on our way to find the American Dream.
And what was the American Dream to Thompson? What reflection of our country's indecencies and obsessions does he reveal in this fun-house-mirror of a book?
Thompson's America is melancholia masked by reverie. He tells us that it's not so much the actual drugs we should focus on in this roman à clef, but the cyclical counterculture of escapism that such reckless drug use represents. It's a dizzying exploration into the psychological landscape of a nation—a micro and macro examination of how we are somehow both the mad scientist and the monster.
We often hear the term "excess" applied to the book. And to be sure, the hallucinations, destroyed hotel rooms, wrecked cars, can certainly be counted as excessive. Such recklessness can also be viewed as the reaction to feelings of helplessness when considering the undercurrent of greed in American culture, epitomized by the city of Las Vegas. Fear and Loathing laments the failure of the 1960s counterculture to actually revolutionize American culture.
Ultimately, I believe it's a kind of relentless drive to find personal meaning that draws readers to this story again and again, as well as an ability to identify at least on some level with Raoul Duke's self-destructive impulses. There are so many methods 21st century Americans continue to rely on to dull our collective senses or self-medicate — food, social media, smart phones. Not to mention that when it comes to recreational drug usage, cocaine and heroin have made a pretty big comeback in recent years.
Escapism. Greed. Reckless behavior. It's not a side of American culture we like to air out, and this is why we need to continue to read Fear and Loathing. Perhaps Thompson's road-trip chronicle continues to be relevant because it turns an unflinching eye on what it really would take to change the world for the better — and why it so rarely happens.
You are invited to attend "Carnegie Classics: Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas" on Saturday at 7 p.m., at the Carnegie Center, 251 W. Second St., Lexington. We will celebrate with live rock-and-roll performances, dance and visual art of all kinds.
We'll be transforming the center into a Las Vegas nightclub, complete with heavy hors d'oeuvres and an open bar.
Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door.
Bianca Spriggs is literary arts liaison at Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.