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Literature / Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

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"He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man."
Dr. Samuel Johnson, as quoted at the beginning of the book, the film and the audio drama.

"We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold..."

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is a legendarily insane book written in 1971 by Hunter S. Thompson and illustrated by Ralph Steadman, loosely based on two trips to Las Vegas that Thompson took "in search of The American Dream". The book was adapted into a 1998 film directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro. An audio drama version was released on CD in 1996, with Harry Dean Stanton (who also had a cameo in the movie) as the narrator, Jim Jarmusch as Duke, and Maury Chaykin as Gonzo.

It starts at the line above and goes downhill from there. The story involves a mad journalist (Raoul Duke, based on Thompson) and his Samoan attorney (Dr. Gonzo, based on Chicano attorney/activist Oscar Zeta Acosta, with nationality changed to protect the innocent guilty) traveling from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to chronicle the Mint 400 desert bike race for Sports Illustrated, consuming many, many illegal drugs in the process. In actuality, Thompson was writing a piece on Acosta and the then-fledgling Chicano-rights movement, and both were glad to have an excuse to get out of L.A. because Acosta's radical friends thought that he was spending too much time with Thompson, a gringo WASP whom they suspected of being a police agent (not at all an unrealistic suspicion in 1970, but also one that happened to be wildly incorrect about Thompson himself).note  When this falls through, in part due to their severe drug saturation, Raoul attempts to return to Los Angeles, but gets called back into Vegas by Rolling Stone for the National District Attorneys Association's Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. He accepts largely out of irony.

A plot summary cannot cover the radically unique feel of the book. Largely written in a stream of consciousness, the book covers the tail end and self-destruction of the '60s freedom and drug culture and the beginning of the increasing tightness of the 1970s. As one summary said, it can be said to be an increasingly desperate search for the American Dream in a time where it seems impossible.

Also contains a famous line about Goddamned Bats, though they are not used in the book themselves.

Not to be confused with the Japanese band of the same name.

Wait! We can't stop here. This is Trope country:

  • Anachronic Order: The story does not hew slavishly to the actual chronology of events. Whole chapters are taken up with massive flashbacks or Flash Forwards.
  • Angrish: Gonzo's speech consists mostly of this in the "White Rabbit" scene.
  • Author Avatar: Raoul Duke is an obvious stand-in for Thompson.
  • Ax-Crazy: Dr. Gonzo.
  • The Cameo: Debbie Reynolds and Big Band leader, trumpeter and (at that time) Las Vegas staple Harry James make a brief but memorable appearance.
  • Canon Illustrations: It is hard to imagine the book without the accompanying Ralph Steadman art.
  • Casual Car Giveaway: The book opens with Duke and his attorney picking up a hitchhiker as they drive to Las Vegas in a brand-new fireapple-red convertible. The kid's never ridden in a convertible before, and Duke briefly considers just giving it to him.
  • Catchphrase: "As your attorney, I advise you to..." Usually followed by advice no attorney should give their client.
  • Circus of Fear: The Circus-Circus Casino, at least when you are already hallucinating.
    "The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This is the sixth Reich."
  • Cool Bike: Gonzo and Duke are obsessed with the Vincent Black Shadow, a top-end British performance bike; at one point, they claim to be from the Vincent racing team. This is all talk, of course, but Duke did own an operate a BSA 650 Lightning, which is almost if not quite as cool.
  • Cool Car: The Red Shark and Great White Whale.
    • The Alleged Car: What the Great White Whale becomes by the end of the book.
      "I tried to put the top up, for privacy, but something was wrong with the motor. The generator light had been on, fiery red, ever since I'd driven the thing into Lake Mead on a water test. A quick run along the the dashboard disclosed that every circuit in the car was totally fucked. Nothing worked. Not even the headlights — and when I hit the air conditioner button I heard a nasty explosion under the hood."
  • Crazy is Cool: Invoked in Duke's description of Dr. Gonzo as he leaves Las Vegas—though with an definite emphasis on crazy. When Hunter S. Thompson thinks you're out of your mind...
    There he goes. One of God's own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Raoul Duke.
  • Disconnected by Death: Gonzo fakes this to get rid of Lucy. He puts her into a room in a different hotel, and phones her from the room he is sharing with Duke. While calmly telling her how he stomped Duke (supposedly his rival for Lucy's affections) he starts screaming and shouting as if the room had been invaded, moans "Don't put that thing on me," and then hangs up.
  • Dramatically Delayed Drug:
    • Early in the novel, after mistiming his latest sampling of the huge valise of drugs that he and Dr Gonzo brought along, Raoul Duke finds himself struggling to reach Las Vegas before the LSD kicks in. He doesn't quite make it and ends up having to check into a relatively respectable Vegas hotel while tripping out of his brain, all while desperately trying not to get too much attention.
    • Later, Raoul takes some mescaline and reflects that it always takes longer to take effect than you think: by the second hour of waiting, you usually get the impression that your drug dealer ripped you off, and then the effects hit all at once without warning. In Raoul's case, they hit while he's walking through Circus-Circus, leaving him utterly overwhelmed and unprepared for how the already-trippy visuals of the casino are enhanced by mescaline.
  • Drink-Based Characterization: Raoul Duke really loves his Wild Turkey 101. Although being an Undiscriminating Addict he has no problem swallowing tequila and other liquors if that is what's available.
  • Drugs Are Bad:
    • Part Two, Chapter Five, "A Terrible Experience with Extremely Dangerous Drugs." Duke takes some adrenochrome:
      Death, I was sure of it. Not even my lungs seemed to be functioning. I needed artificial respiration, but I couldn't even open my mouth to say so. I was going to die, just sitting there on the bed, unable to move …
    • More generally, Duke and Gonzo take a lot of drugs, but they don't seem to have much fun. Duke's hallucinations are frightening and disorienting, and Gonzo keeps on lashing out with knives.
  • Drugs Are Good: They're certainly useful if you're bummed about how The '60s turned out. Also, Duke and Gonzo are not shown to suffer any permanent consequences from their various bad trips.
  • Electrified Bathtub: On a bad trip, Dr. Gonzo demands this. Duke fakes it by unplugging the tape machine and hurling a grapefruit into the tub.
  • End of an Age: The "Wave Speech" at the end of Chapter 8 ponders the optimism of the hippie era at its peak, and how it eventually receded.
  • Fake Assisted Suicide: Dr. Gonzo (after eating a huge amount of acid) asks Raoul Duke to throw the tape player into his bathtub "when 'White Rabbit' peaks." Duke instead throws a grapefruit into the tub and makes away with the tape player.
  • Gun Nut: Raoul Duke, emphasis on the nut. Exhibit A, describing his time in San Francisco:
    Duke: I did, after all, have weapons. And I liked to shoot them – especially at night, when the great blue flame would leap out, along with all that noise... and, yes, the bullets, too. We couldn’t ignore that. Big balls of lead/alloy flying around the valley at speeds up to 3700 feet per second.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Don't get on Dr. Gonzo's bad side.
  • Harmful to Hitchhikers: In an early scene, Duke and Gonzo threaten and terrorize a hitchhiker.
  • Hypocritical Humor: While travelling with the hitchhiker, Duke becomes paranoid that Gonzo will start raving about being attacked by bats, which would prompt the hitchhiker to alert the authorities. And in the process, he almost blurts out that they should behead and bury the hitchhiker before he can call the cops. Then Duke decides he'd better have a chat with the kid to sooth his unease...
    • Moments later, he threateningly inquires if the hitchhiker is "prejudiced" against the Samoan Gonzo:
      Hitchhiker: Hell, no, sir!
      Duke: I didn't think so. Because in spite of his race, this man is extremely valuable to me.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: "He offered me human blood as payment, said it would take me higher than cocaine. But I settled for some of this instead."
    • They freak out a few cops at the conference by making up stories about cannibal Satanists raiding cafes.
  • Immune to Drugs: Duke and Gonzo take enough drugs to kill the Third Marines, though this doesn't stop the effect they experience.
  • In-Universe Factoid Failure: The drug expert at the police narcotics convention comes up with ridiculous "facts", such as a joint being called a roach because "it resembles a cockroach."
    "What the fuck are these people talking about?" my attorney whispered. "You'd have to be crazy on acid to think a joint looked like a goddamn cockroach!"
  • In-Universe Soundtrack: ''Sympathy for the Devil'', ''White Rabbit,'', '"Joy To The World" (no, not that one), ''Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again'', ''Bridge Over Troubled Water'', "The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley," "One Toke Over the Line," and of course "... Debbie Reynolds yukking across the stage in a silver Afro wig... to the tune of 'Sergeant Pepper', from the golden trumpet of Harry James..." — late '60s and very early '70's classics and kitsch all play key roles in the events of the novel.
  • Kangaroo Court: Duke fears that he and Gonzo will be tried and imprisoned by one of these because of Lucy.
  • Karma Houdini: Duke and Gonzo binge on over a dozen different illegal narcotics over the course of a weekend that should have killed them by this point, they threaten the lives of over a dozen hotel employees, patrons and the general public, they go through two different cars, Gonzo has drinks served to a minor (with implications that he was planning on having sex with her) and gives her freaking LSD without her consent or even knowledge; they destroy hotel property and buy an absurd portion of room service with a collection of bills that stack up in the thousands (in not one, but two different hotels, all on funding from Duke's employers), and this is all that Duke allows the reader to see. The story ends before any real foreseeable consequences could rain down on either of them.
    • The one close subversion is when Duke gets pulled over for speeding and with a beer in his hand no less, though he only gets let off with a warning.
  • Kick the Dog: There's a waitress in Las Vegas who's still crying under utter panic. It's in this scene that their antics stop being fun and truly cross the line.
    • And the hitchhiker. Duke was planning on killing him in a drug-induced paranoia.
  • Lighter and Softer: The audio drama version does not include the scenes where Gonzo terrorises the waitress and the hotel maid.
  • Long List: The drugs in the trunk of the car.
    Duke: We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, a whole galaxy of multicolored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers... also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Subverted by the first editions of the book, despite the best efforts of the publishers. When publication of the book was still being negotiated, the publishers' lawyers tried to get Thompson to delete the references to his attorney engaging in criminal acts; even as depicted through an Expy, it could have badly damaged his reputation and been considered libelous. Thompson reached out to Oscar Zeta Acosta, the real life model for the fictional Dr. Gonzo, and asked him to sign a release. Acosta however initially refused, not because he was concerned over libelous content, but because he took offense at the changes made to his character — he was a proud Chicano, and considered it an insult that the book described him as "a 300-pound Samoan". He would only sign the release on the condition that he be explicitly named as the basis for Gonzo on the book's cover (which was eventually done by placing a photograph of him and Thompson on it). In other words, he insisted on taking full credit for the very criminal behavior the lawyers feared would harm and/or offend him.
  • No Ending: After Gonzo leaves, Duke meanders around Vegas a bit before heading to the airport to go home himself...and that's about it.
  • Noodle Incident: The book is full of moments of unexplained weirdness. Duke mentions smacking on a table with his "open, bleeding palm", but he never actually bothers to explain where the cut on his hand came from. Nor do we ever find out where he got the marlinspike that Doctor Gonzo says he was waving around during his freakout in the Mint Hotel bar. Or why there's tape all over his legs.
  • Oh, Crap!: There's a long sequence where Duke discusses how to get a cop coming after you for speeding to let you go (involving forcing him to chase you at even higher speeds). After toying with the cop for several minutes, Duke pulls over and gets out... only to realize as he does so that he's still holding an open beer, and his methods are not going to get him out of trouble for drunk driving. (The cop lets him go with a warning.)
  • Opening Monologue: "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold..."
  • Pineal Weirdness: Adrenochrome. Good lord.
    We need some of that. Extract of pineal... or maybe just a fresh gland... to chew on.
  • Questionable Consent: The book does not explicitly say that Gonzo had sex with teenage runaway Lucy after giving her LSD and booze, but Duke certainly thinks that that's what happened.
  • Rebellious Spirit: Raoul Duke
  • Refuge in Audacity: How the heroes get away with anything and everything.
    "It was all over now. We'd abused every rule that Vegas lived by: burning the locals, abusing the tourists, terrifying the help. The only chance now, I felt, was the possibility that we'd gone to such excess that nobody in the position to bring the hammer down on us could possibly believe it."
  • Rental Car Abuse: The Red Shark and the Great White Whale were both rentals. See Cool Car, above.
  • Reptiles Are Abhorrent:
    • The hotel bar sequence.
      Duke: I was right in the middle of a fucking reptile zoo. And somebody had been giving booze to these goddamn things! It wouldn't be long before they tore us to shreds...
    • Parked by the side of the road in the desert, Duke feels like shooting something, perhaps an iguana:
      They were out there, I knew, in that goddam sea of cactus — hunkered down, barely breathing, and every one of the stinking little bastards was loaded with deadly poison.
  • Running Gag: Each hotel room Duke and Gonzo check into gets consecutively more and more trashed.
  • Serial Escalation: You might cringe at the amount of drugs they take.
    • Or some of the drugs themselves.
    • Or the degree to which they can trash a hotel room.
  • Thirsty Desert: Mojave Desert
  • Title Drop: Duke is imagining what the prosecution might say if the Lucy case came to trial:
    … the drug cache in the possession of the defendants at the time of the arrest was enough to kill an entire platoon of United States Marines … and gentlemen, I use the word kill with all due respect for the fear and loathing I'm sure it provokes in every one of you …
  • Totally Radical: The District Attorney's Conference is shown to be far behind the times.
    "There was simply no call, at this conference, for anything but a massive consumption of Downers: reds, grass, and booze, because the whole program had apparently been set up by people who had been in a Seconal stupor since 1964. Here were more than a thousand top-level cops telling each other 'we must come to terms with the drug culture,' but they had no idea where to start. They couldn't even find the goddamn thing. There were rumors in the hallways that maybe the Mafia was behind it. Or perhaps the Beatles."
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Dr. Gonzo announces that he has "a powerful lust for red salmon." note 
    • In the book, grapefruit is mentioned something like 5 times every chapter.
      • In Real Life, Thompson had three Trademark Favorite Foods: grapefruit, rum, and Wild Turkey 101 bourbon.
      • Something of Truth in Television and Hilarious in Hindsight as chemicals in grapefruit can enhance the body's ability to uptake certain drugs. Which is why people on blood pressure drugs (in particular, but not exclusively) are warned not to eat or drink grapefruit.
  • Uncomfortable Elevator Moment From Hell: "My attorney had made a fool of himself."
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Thompson called the book a failed attempt at gonzo journalism because of the liberties he had to take to make it even slightly readable. There's some time compression and a lot of background stuff missing. For instance, the main reason that Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta went to Las Vegas in the first place was to discuss the incidents that eventually formed the substance of Thompson's essay "Strange Rumblings in Aztlan;" they needed to get out of Los Angeles because Acosta was a big-time civil rights attorney and his bodyguards were very zealous and very suspicious of gringos, even ones like Thompson who were sympathetic to the Chicano cause. The biggest change to the plot is that in real life the Mint 400 race and the drug conference took place on two separate trips, about a month apart. In the book, they happen on two consecutive weekends.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Duke and Gonzo are inseparable yet spend much of the story hurling abuse at each other. And that's when one of them isn't trying to kill the other one in a drug-induced frenzy.
    Raoul Duke: You're a fucking narcotics agent, I knew it! That was our cocaine, you fucking pig swine whore...
    Dr. Gonzo: [brandishing his revolver] You'd better be careful. There's plenty of vultures out here, they'll pick your bones clean before morning.
    Raoul Duke: You fucking whore.
  • Viva Las Vegas!
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: Dr. Gonzo gets one in some of the illustrations.
    Gonzo: (moaning in distress) Goddamn mescaline. Why can't they make it a little less pure?
  • What the Hell, Hero?:
    • The scene with the waitress in the diner; Duke calls Gonzo out on it and realizes their time in Vegas is up.
    • Duke gets a few of these as well, although his are more just him saying horrible things, such as his plans for Lucy: "These cops will go fifty bucks a head to beat her into submission and then gang-fuck her. We can set her up in one of these back-street motels, hang pictures of Jesus all over the room, then turn these fucking pigs loose on her." (Although in this case, Duke was making a very pointed joke to Gonzo about the world of legal trouble in which he was in danger of landing them both by bringing Lucy with him.)

The question is, as always: Now?


Video Example(s):


I've Never Missed A Plane Yet

Not exactly a safe driver at the best of times, Raoul Duke sets out to deliver Dr Gonzo to the airport at any all costs - regardless of little things like roads and traffic.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (13 votes)

Example of:

Main / DrivesLikeCrazy

Media sources: