Saturday, February 26, 2005

Fear and Loathing

Hunter S. Thompson, who died earlier in the week wasn't a "rated" writer, and for some reason literary types always classified him as a cult author and minor celebrity. This was true enough at the height of his powers in the early 1970s, but as his fame spread the literary types got it wrong, unable to see or admit that Thompson had a formidable talent, and his talent was in the most difficult literary form of all - satire.

Satire is of course, the most over-used and common form of comedy available today. There must be hundreds of lame television series, books, and articles produced every year whose excuse for being obvious and clumsy is that they are satire. Indeed they are, but they are incompetent satire, unfunny satire, lazy satire, at their best incapable of raising more than a thin smile and nod of recognition. Americans in particular don't really "get" satire at all, which is why the conventional Time Life/Newsweek portrait of H.S.T focussed on his drug taking (utterly exaggerated, as any 1st year medical student could tell you) and his "craziness." Wow. How amazing. How original. How exciting.

The truth is that at his best, HST could actually have you laughing out loud, laughing hysterically, unable to hold the book still, and if your lungs are as bad as mine, fumbling frantically for your inhaler. I well remember one trans American flight in the mid 1990s where I got worried I might actually rupture or pull some muscles in my torso because of the laughter I was painfully trying to suppress (U.S. flights, even pre 9/11, were rigorously conformist places where refusal to watch the film was considered odd to the point of subversion). The book I was reading, re-reading actually, was Fear and Loathing and Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson's masterpiece.

Fear and Loathing has so many good qualities it’s rather dull to list them all. Rereading it again recently, I was struck, hard, once again by the tremendous pace and driving energy of the narrative. It’s rather like a great thriller, only funny, very funny, and with a needle sharp intelligence and observation that penetrates the glittery surface of everything in Las Vegas to reveal the tawdry greed and base motivation below. Then there’s the effortless vivid description, which is capable of sketching everything from people, to motorcycle races, to hotel rooms, the inevitable casinos, and famously, the suspiciously apt and coherent hallucinations. Then there are the one-liners, the epigrams, a Thompson speciality, such as:

The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing on a Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war.


[Las Vegas] is not a good town for psychedelic drugs. Reality itself is too twisted.

Thomson admired the previous generation of American writers such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald and the polished craft of his writing style reflects this. In 200 pages there isn't a single bad sentence, or a miscued punch line. Vast amounts of hard (sober) work (and talent) must have gone into perfecting this deceptively conversational, light style.

For "serious" readers, you can see it as a coda to the late 1960s social revolution. By the early 1970s, its apparent to Thompson that the dream is dead, the Counter Culture has been defeated, a pre-Watergate Richard Nixon is safe in the White House, and the silent majority are satisfied and complacent.

This is the best American comedy of the 20th Century, and it will be read and enjoyed [with footnotes to tell you who Spiro Agnew was] 100 years hence. No great author really dies, death simply stops him or her writing – Hunter S. Thompson’s legacy will endure.

NOTE: Portions of this entry come from my review of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on



Post a Comment

<< Home