I wanted to be Hunter S. Thompson when I was growing up. Not LIKE Hunter Thompson, I wanted to BE him. Maybe with fewer drug dependencies, felonious charges, and people terrified to be in my presence. My obsession with Thompson began the same place it does for many HST devotees, with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas a Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. I was a lowly high school freshman when I first stumbled upon Fear and Loathing. My previous literary endeavors had never ventured past the autobiographies of rock stars and the few school assigned books that didn’t have summaries online and required actual attention. There was something different about Thompson’s book that struck me and bound me to it. I was taken by the sheer bravado of the book, astounded that any man could complete the drug addled feats described, munching sheet after sheet of blotter acid, bingeing on ether, paralyzing himself with adrenochrome then live to tell the tale. I was astounded that any man would tell the tale. (Although, Thompson was always cagey on the full truth of the matter.) The book felt like something I shouldn’t be reading, something that flew in the face of the society and culture I knew. I was in love.
With many works, you don’t fully understand the scope of them on your first time through. This was true for me with Fear and Loathing especially at an age where I had next to no life experience outside of my homogenous Midwestern suburb. It is easy to get trapped within the debauchery and intensity of Thompson’s stories. They are outlandish and unimaginable yet experienced by Thompson as another day and always, even if barely, survivable. This is a trap many readers get caught in with Thompson; the sheer shock value overshadows the truth of the story. It took me a while to fully understand this myself. There is a weird sanity inside Thompson’s insanity. He existed as everything that is right and wrong with the nation wrapped into one overpowering persona. He reached the extremes of excess and brutality, acting in animalistic ways to follow his own desires yet, at the same time, possesses a keen eye for the reality of the world around him. In Fear and Loathing he writes “But our trip was different. It was a classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in the national character. It was a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country-but only for those with true grit. And we were chock full of that.” This is Thompson’s description of a drug fueled weekend terrorizing Las Vegas. He shows that there is always something more, a terrible and brutal truth.
Thompson could see the former beauty of a heroin addict and the seedy underbelly of Easter brunch with your grandmother. He understood the human soul, not as a romantic poet does, finding the beautiful power of living things, he understood the depravity and overwhelming desires that lie within each person struggling for release and fulfillment. There is a rawness and power to his writing that displays honesty about the grit of society. This is what is most terrifying about his work, you are unable to stop his unyielding intensity creeping through you and pulling out your animalistic desires and depravities as you feel yourself inching closer to the edge. But as Thompson said, “The edge…there is no honest way to explain it, because the ones who know where it is are the ones who have gone over.” He flirts with the edges of human existence and invites you to join whether vicariously through him, or curling your toes over your own edge. The Crazy never dies.
“I hate to advocate drugs, violence, and insanity, but they’ve always worked for me” -HST
– Jim Stryker