Hunter S. Thompson is known for his erratic style and controversial writing on many aspects of the American society. In his novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson explores escapism- both external and internal- which was growing in popularity headed into the drug movement of the 1970’s. The youth were restless and bored, and the generation gap was causing a lot of young Americans to feel disconnected with their country’s view of a successful and meaningful existence.
The youth wanted something different- they wanted something more- more fun, more adventurous, more exciting than the average life of school, work, and providing for a family in a big city. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas presents a solution to this dream of a new identity, following the life of a rather lunatic journalist named Duke.
Thompson’s story explores the themes of internal and external escapism, through Duke’s use of copious amounts of drugs on his trip to cover a rally car race in Las Vegas with his said “attorney”, in addition to Thompson’s personal and intriguing writing style proclaimed as “Gonzo Journalism”, effectively making the work rebellious and fresh- an appealing novel to the youth counter-culture of the time- testing the limits and breaking the rules of the contemporary “American Dream”.
The first thing the reader really gets a grasp on is that Duke and his attorney are heavy drug users, with the first line of the novel reading, “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold” (Thompson 3). The feeling that the main characters in the story are somewhat deranged and not of the typical American society is quickly manifested with lines like “… the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car” (Thompson 3) and “Very soon, I knew, we would both be completely twisted.
But there was no going back, and no time to rest” (Thompson 3). Thompson frequently covers the wild drug trips and the profound internal change that heavy drugs have on the minds of both Duke and the attorney. His intriguing writing style also adds to the understanding of a mind on drugs. Thompson often uses ellipses and hyphens, which makes the words feel like a big continuous thought and makes the accounts seem more real and personal. It is, essentially, the internal rant of the main character Duke- but all of the words have meaning.
He covers the mind of a man on drugs so thoroughly to explore the idea of internal escapism- the use of drugs to alter what one experiences as reality. The line, “Jesus! Did I say that? Or just think it? Was I talking? Did they hear me? ” (Thompson 5), shows that Duke is lost in his own mind. He has escaped the realm of rational thinking and has formed his own new, individual reality that no one outside of his mind could fully understand or experience. It is a trip into the unknown depths that drugs can create in the brain, a rebellion against what society has created as real and tangible.
With LSD and marijuana growing quickly in popularity with the counter-culture of the time, this use of drug-addled men as the protagonists of the novel is very fitting and relatable to the rebellion of the time. Duke and the attorney, quite frequently throughout the novel, see the other characters as scary or crazy, when in reality it is actually the two of them that look like lunatics, pushing the notion of a significant difference between the deranged protagonists and the more “normal” characters that they encounter across the way.
This difference is an extreme symbol of the generation gap that was causing so many of the youth to question their societies- the older generations (“normal” characters) look down upon the rebellious youth (Duke and the attorney) with concern and general confusion as to why they are the way that they are, while the youth look up upon the older generations with fear and dissatisfaction of their normality and their stagnant lifestyles.
The reader sees the main characters harsh critiques of the normal society, but is not granted insight into the normal society’s critiques on the main characters, which is another use of symbolism worth noting. The youth counter-culture had so much disdain for their older generations, but never took the time to really evaluate what they themselves were doing. The older generations could see that the counter-culture would not bring fulfillment to the youth in the end, but despite their efforts to display this to the youth, the counter-culture barreled on without missing a beat.
This can be applied to the ending of the novel, in which Duke realizes that he has failed to achieve any sort of truth or meaning in his quest for the American dream. Another big theme covered in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the idea of external escapism- fleeing from the society one was raised in was a very significant dream of a lot of the youth of the time. Duke says, “Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only real cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas.
To relax, as it were, in the womb of the desert sun. Just roll the roof back and screw it on, grease the face with white tanning butter and move out with the music at top volume…” (Thompson 12). This is an extreme take on escapism. The point being made is that sometimes where you are at in life is complicated and stressful. Hometowns with families and expectations can bear heavy on a rebellious youthful soul, and packing up and getting out- hitting the open road- was a dream that many young Americans had, and one that many of the members of counter-culture actually tried.
The sense that a lot of these movements really had no direction is pushed in the novel as well, like when Duke fantasizes about giving the keys to their convertible to a young hitchhiker. “… then use the credit card to zap off on a jet to some place like Miami and rent another huge fireapple-red convertible… and then trade the car off for a boat. Keep moving. ” (Thompson 17).
This quote really shows the idea that, for a lot of the youth, it did not matter where they were going or how they were going to get there- it was all about getting out, changing the scenery, never staying still. It encompasses the counter-culture’s dream to avoid a stagnant life, and pushes the theme that they wanted something different- they wanted change- change in location, in politics, in industrialization, in what is seen as success and what is seen as failure, in just about all the significant aspects of the external society they lived in.
In conclusion, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a wonderfully creative depiction of the new American dream of the counter-culture. They wanted America to be their playground, they saw the American dream as all this land with vast possibilities for fun and adventure and individuality, while the older generations wanted to keep running big businesses and promoted the idea that the American dream was more of a chance to make money and provide needed service for an American community. Although Thompson’s depiction is often times pushed to the very extreme, it holds true to the essential feelings and efforts of the youth to make a change from the generations above them, no matter what that took, no matter what it would cost them, whether it be money, relationships, or even their sanity.