Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1837
Some critics have either reduced or celebrated Thompson’s literary status as merely the transcriptions of a hyperbolic, deviant, or as one critic dubbed him, ritualistic writer, collecting himself within the popular, political, or cultural moment at any given time. There is truth to that. By the same token, to come to terms with Thompson’s self-titled “gonzo” style and approach to composition is to come into contact with one of the cultural byproducts of the 1960’s counterculture movement known as the New Journalism.
Coined to some degree or another by one of its own practitioners, Thomas Wolfe, the New Journalism sought to approach journalism more from the vantage point of the literary essay. It was enamored with the free speech movement coming out of the University of Berkeley in the mid-1960’s and possibly even more concerned with the idea that a nonbiased, objective journalism was veritably impossible. Thus, New Journalists sought not to even try to aim at objectivity. Rather, picking up off of the underground newspapers populating colleges, universities, and major metropolitan centers of influence, they aimed at trying to place themselves within the cultural moment being reported upon and attempted to give the most accurate description of all observable phenomena (including the feelings, emotions, and cultural ephemera that the reporter was experiencing at the time).
Oftentimes, this approach at compiling an absolute verisimilitude gave the narratives constructed a particularly nonjournalistic look: Pieces often resembled stream-of-consciousness prose reminiscent of James Joyce; conversational-styled vernacular became more pressing than strong syntax and diction; and the journalist’s own “I,” as a voice often used as counterpoint to actual discernable concrete fact, became imperative to get a full account of the story. The effect created by this new approach was one of meta-commentary on the events being reported on, whereby the events, themselves, almost become subservient to the narrative of the person reporting.
Thompson took this approach a step further, into a category of almost subversive decadence with what he eventually came to call gonzo journalism. The exact definition of the term is somewhat unclear as Thompson often defined and redefined the term with the same sort of flippancy that led him to call himself a doctor of journalism (a degree he bestowed upon himself when he received a mail-order “Doctor of Divinity” card from a San Francisco church). The term itself came from fellow journalist Bill Cardoso, who could only describe Thompson’s writing as gonzo. Insofar as it is an actual methodology, gonzo journalism’s main attributes seem to be heavily indebted to the drug culture about which Thompson avidly reported.
For, if Thompson’s narratives on how to write from the gonzo perspective are to be held as accurate and instructional, then gonzo journalism demands writing under the influence of narcotics, alcohol, and a variety of illicit substances and then transferring that writing directly into print publication with virtually no substantial revision. In this effect, the construction of the narrative becomes directly indebted to the state of consciousness of the writer; for example, if the writer is operating on an ether and mescaline high, then that prose may or may not be subject to that writer’s own paranoias, anxieties, or hallucinations. This can account for the dramatic shifts in narrative style and focus in Thompson’s writing, in addition to his occasional use of direct transcription from audio tape to the written page (as Thompson had, on occasion, claimed no memory of the incidents except for as they were recorded).
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
First published: 1972
Type of work: Long fiction
In search of the American Dream, Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo scour the Las Vegas Strip on an investigative trek into the American drug culture.
Standing posthumously somewhere behind Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the figure of Horatio Alger, Jr. A nineteenth century author of rags-to-riches fairy tales, Alger wrote stories describing how the littlest guy, through nothing more than hard work and determination, could succeed and achieve the American Dream. The conclusions to which Thompson takes that initial premise in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas probably go well beyond anything Alger ever possibly conceived.
The plot itself is simple. Thompson and his lawyer, operating under the absurd pseudonyms Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo, respectively, are sent out to Las Vegas to cover the Mint 400, a motorcycle race across the desert. Upon receiving the assignment, both Duke and Gonzo come upon the notion that the assignment itself is really only subordinate, and is treated as such, to a much greater project: the quest for the American Dream. While Thompson often invokes Alger’s thoughts and occasionally his words, to reiterate his quest, never in the narrative are any causal connections established between his assignment (proper) and his quest (conceived and undertaken).
To accomplish this more self-styled gonzo project, Duke and Gonzo formulate a plan to infiltrate the seedy underbelly of Las Vegas under the influence of a cornucopia of drugs and alcohol. What follows from here is little more than a travelogue of Duke and Gonzo’s adventures over the course of a few days through Las Vegas’s hotels, bars, and drug scene as they revel in their own indulgence to an unfathomable degree. Gonzo frequently teeters a line which legitimately threatens his own life, and, by the midpoint of the text, coverage of the Mint 400 largely has taken a backseat to escaping Las Vegas. In their decadence, Duke and Gonzo have possibly crossed a line by running up an absurd hotel tab that they have no intentions of paying. In Thompson’s own hallucinatory state of self-disgust and paranoia, the legitimate fear and loathing of the book, he wonders if Las Vegas’s reputation for settling up with welshers through lethal, if not legal, means might be employed upon him.
Part Two expands the gonzo aspects of the book and introduces, if not cements, it with irony. On the lam from seemingly everyone in Las Vegas and headed back to his California home, Thompson receives a telegram informing him that he has received a high-paying assignment to cover the National Conference of District Attorney’s four-day seminar on drugs and narcotics. The idea itself of Thompson—in his own mind a dilettante to the drug culture but a far better resource on the subject matter than district attorneys—covering the people who try to debilitate and legislate the drug scene in the United States is too tempting an opportunity to pass up.
In an instance of a Christian walking directly into the lions’ den, Duke and Gonzo infiltrate the drug conference and are amazed at how far behind America’s legal enforcers are to the American drug scene. Disenchanted, they both come to realize that there is no pragmatic danger of them being caught on drugs as, even though they are surrounded by the nation’s drug enforcers, the attorneys are entirely clueless as to the nature of the drug user and drug culture. They leave the conference and pick up the quest for the American Dream, which, Thompson comes to find, does not exist. His final reaction and rejection leads him to believe that perhaps Alger may have been more right than he initially realized: The American Dream can be found in Las Vegas, as any child who grew up wanting to be part of the circus can indeed grow up to be the proprietor of Circus Circus, a low-rated resort and casino, which Thompson regards with little value. The irony for Thompson comes full circle here, as he discovers that with success can also come self-loathing.
Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72
First published: 1973
Type of work: Nonfiction
Following George McGovern on the ill-fated Democrat’s run for the White House, Thompson focuses his eye on President Richard Nixon, the decrepit state of journalism, and America.
Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, much like its immediate predecessor Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, picks up a sort of master narrative of the futile attempts of the proverbial underdog striving for and achieving the American Dream, only to be crushed at the end by the general milieu of the postmodern world. The hero that Thompson utilizes in this autobiography of his coverage of the 1971-1972 presidential race is George McGovern, the idealistic Democratic candidate whom Thompson characterizes as the great underdog of the election versus entrenched Republican incumbent President Nixon.
Two points require immediate articulation. First, Thompson again writes a veritable diary of his position (both ideological and logistical as Rolling Stone’s political correspondent) as a chronological and cartographical narrative of what he believed to be the cultural moment. Writing in the shadows of McCarthyism and the debacle of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, he paints Richard Nixon as this narrative’s villain and an entrenched evil permeating America. From Thompson’s perspective, McGovern does, to a fault, represent the furthest left agenda, perhaps to a naïve degree, as he endorses extreme policies such as full amnesty for draft evaders of the Vietnam War and total unilateral withdrawal from the conflict itself. In effect, the gonzo journalist finds a gonzo candidate. Second, given his strong polemical position regarding journalism, Thompson argues that the great mass media conglomerate largely and inappropriately dismisses McGovern as a viable candidate worth their attention (focusing rather on more notable and charismatic candidates such as Ted Kennedy). Thompson, who is literally following and critiquing McGovern, among others, in the trenches of their campaigns to almost microscopic detail, believes his perspective, no matter how biased, offers a greater degree of accuracy. For this, Thompson finds the media contemptuous for their lack of vision and objectivity—noting how the major politicians are as much indebted to “Big Media” and vice versa—and vilifies them to almost the same extent that he does the Nixon administration. Thompson finds that McGovern, without major media ties or traditional support, must largely rely upon youth platforms, grassroots politics, and the youth vote, all of which he perceives to be politically suicidal.
When McGovern rises as the Democratic frontrunner and eventual presidential candidate by mid-April, Thompson’s attitude (whose gonzo narrative does not take the liberty to revise his prior notions concerning McGovern, thus preserving all prior dismissals of him as even a forethought) toward him appears to take a decisively negative turn heading into October. From Thompson’s perspective, McGovern’s compromises and politics seem to equate to a reversal and further breakdown of the Democratic Party’s political machine. His defeat at Nixon’s hands seems predestined by Thompson, whose scrutiny of McGovern intensifies with every action he categorizes as mistaken, cowardly, and in total abandonment of the policies that landed him the nomination in the first place. As Thompson sees it, McGovern becomes part of the establishment that he so valiantly seemed to wish to fight. American history has recorded the resultant effect of that assessment as Thompson’s underdog, McGovern, is swiftly defeated by Nixon in the presidential elections of 1972.