What hits you with this book is the visceral thrill of riding through the Nevada desert in an old roofless Cadillac with the warm desert wind blowing into your face as you head to the messed up town of Las Vegas in a more messed up state and the intention of messing everything up in the process. There are a wealth of insane and deranged characters that you meet along the way. Mostly it’s the straight-laced, orderly members of society who are the most insane ones, but there are plenty of unhinged others en route as well, including Thompson’s dangerously erratic Samoan travelling companion and lawyer named Dr Gonzo.
When writing the novel, Hunter S. Thompson was drafted in to go on a trip to report on a desert car rally for Rolling Stone in 1970, but got distracted along the way and went looking for The American Dream instead, as well as taking in a suitcase load of illegal substances. The book encompasses the acts and scenes that ensued, which may or may not have been completely true as they happened, but must be near enough to the case to have been printed as they were reported.
Thompson, aka Raoul Duke, depicts the moment that the civil rights movement in America reached its peak and then subsided, leaving before it a waste of burnt out freaks with nowhere to go and a country that was hanging them out to dry. Thompson summarises this perfectly in his book, astutely lancing many of the contemporary morays of his day, and predicting many more victims of the fallout. Ralph Steadman’s scabrous illustrations enhance the mood superbly, his frazzled, acid-scarred style scorching through the pages and into the retina of the readers like the harsh, unforgiving Vegas sunlight.
The protagonists venture onwards to, where else, but a National District Attorneys Association’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, where they observe the inadequacies and absurdities of US federal drug laws, and then continue down a Death Valley cruise through narcotic Hades to the outer limits of their own sanity and the legal boundaries of acceptable human behaviour and decency. We find we, and Western society itself, at the end of the line, shattered and broken and thirsty. Thompson was a visionary and prophet for our time, which is no wonder he was ignored and ridiculed for most of his life, and a long time afterwards except for by a cult of true believers in his hallowed, revolutionary words. It’s also no small wonder he blew himself away with a shotgun after having to sit through more than one term of President George W. Bush. Thompson had had enough, and nobody could blame him one iota (although many did). Dr Gonzo also met an unusual fate, but that isn’t explored in the book, so you can find out what happened to him yourself. For now, let’s just consider the legacy that this trailblazing book has left us, its linguistic zing and its revelatory content. We shall not see the likes of them again, but we can get a taste of their exhilirating, free-spirited world by reading this book.