We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like 'I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive...'; And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: 'Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?'
So begins Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S Thompson's infamous hurricane of a novel, a tale of car racing, disturbed young women, redneck police officers, journalism on the edge of reason, and drugs. Mainly drugs, though.
Originally published as a two-part serial in Rolling Stone magazine in 1971, the novel follows fictional Gonzo1 hack Raoul Duke and his Samoan attorney as they break all the rules in the USA's most surreal city, exposing the rampant consumerism and cut-throat predation underlying Las Vegas' tourist veneer.
Truth being stranger than fiction, the plot is based on two trips to Vegas that Thompson made with his friend, attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta, while Thompson was preparing an article on Los Angeles's Chicano community).
Subtitled 'A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream,' Duke's hedonism and irresponsibility is never allowed to entirely overshadow his strong political conscience and journalistic instincts. He's an observer, first and foremost, of the rot permeating the America of Nixon and Kissinger. He's also capable of great sensitivity, turning his present-day observations on Vegas into a sad eulogy of the acid-fuelled, politically-charged youth movements of the 1960s.
Fear and Loathing's appeal has partly to do with the power of Thompson's prose, frequently hypnotic in its inimitable sing-song way, and partly with the prodigious quantity of narcotics that are consumed (a nice counterpoint to the insatiable consumerism at the gambling tables and slot machines). For many, this is their introduction to the creative possibilities of marijuana and cocaine, their benchmark for the difference between blotter acid (LSD) and mescaline, their description of just what the hell adrenochrome is. The appeal is also enhanced by the illustrations of British artist Ralph Steadman; his pen-and-ink interpretations of Thompson's acid-soaked prose helped cement their professional relationship and solidify Steadman's reputation as a graphic interpreter of Gonzo journalism.
Thompson would later describe Fear and Loathing as a failed experiment in Gonzo journalism; he'd initially intended for his notes on Vegas to be published unedited and unrevised, but later realised he had to rework the story in order for it to be readable. Despite this reservation, the novel has become a classic bestseller, and is often cited (along with Thompson's reportage on the Nixon administration during its second term) as classic examples of Gonzo literature.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas became a movie, directed by Monty Python alumnus Terry Gilliam and released by Universal in 1998. Johnny Depp played Raoul Duke, Benecio del Toro played his attorney, and Thompson himself makes a cameo appearance. Although many critics agreed that Gilliam had succeeded in faithfully interpreting the book (Depp's Duke is a far better impersonation of the real Hunter Thompson than that of Bill Murray in Where the Buffalo Roam), they questioned the suitability of the novel for screen presentation, and the film was not a success in its initial release. The film has since been issued on DVD in two versions, first by Universal and most recently in a deluxe set by The Criterion Collection.