“You have no faith in the essential decency of the white man’s culture. Jesus, just one hour ago we were sitting over there in that stinking baiginio, stone broke and paralyzed for the weekend, when a call comes through from some total stranger in New York, telling me to go to Las Vegas and expenses be damned—and then he sends me over to some strange office in Beverly Hills where another total stranger gives me $300 raw cash for no reason at all . . . I tell you, my man, this is the American Dream in action! We’d be fools not to ride this strange torpedo all the way out to the end."
Raoul Duke remains preoccupied with the American Dream throughout Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and he periodically suggests that the underlying purpose of his trip is to find out what the contemporary version of the American Dream might look like. This is the first of several instances in which he classifies a particular place or occurrence as "the American Dream." Of course, most of these mentions are sardonic, including this one. Even as Duke embraces the freedom and power that his career has given him, he also recognizes that capitalism can create bizarre and surreal events. By situating his comment within ‘the white man’s culture,’ Duke also acknowledges his position of privilege. Meanwhile, despite his elite profession, Duke's attorney is treated poorly by many of the people he encounters on the journey. Duke is sensitive to the challenges his friend faces, and they ultimately inform his larger critique of racism.
“I watched that fight in Seattle—horribly twisted about four seats down the aisle from the Governor. A very painful experience in every way, a proper end to the sixties: Tim Leary a prisoner of Eldridge Cleaver in Algeria, Bob Dylan clipping coupons in Greenwich Village, both Kennedys murdered by mutants, Owsley folding napkins on Terminal Island, and finally Cassius/Ali belted incredibly off his pedestal by a human hamburger, a man on the verge of death. Joe Frazier, like Nixon, had finally prevailed for reasons that people like me refused to understand—at least not out loud.”
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was published in late 1971, a time when the end of the 1960s was a source of cultural fascination. Many of the social movements for which the ‘60s are famous—including the student movements, communes, the nascent drug culture, and the Civil Rights Movement—began to lose steam near the end of the decade. Here, Duke lists a series of seminal events and figures of the late 1960s, pairing each one with surreal imagery. This reflects the sense of disorientation that many members of the counterculture must have felt as their causes declined or veered off in unexpected directions.
“No, this is not a good town for psychedelic drugs. Reality itself is too twisted.”
The surreal imagery that pervades Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas comes from a variety of sources. Duke sometimes relates his drug hallucinations in detail, but most of the text’s oddest visuals are drawn from reality. As today, in 1971 Las Vegas was known for its over-the-top sights and its reputation as a city where visitors could let loose and indulge in forbidden vices. This makes it a uniquely appropriate setting for a writer like Thompson, who employs dark comedy and hyperbole to critique American culture. For much of the text, Duke uses drugs to escape tense or frightening surroundings. In Las Vegas, though, his surroundings are already so absurd that ‘twisting’ them via drugs is almost ineffective.
“San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run... but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant...”
Starting in about 1965, San Francisco became a hub for the youth counterculture (Trenchard and McCarthy). The city offered several attractions that drew young people from around the country. For example, the University of California at Berkeley was the center of the student movement, the drug culture proliferated in the Haight-Ashbury district, and the art and music scene was vibrant in the North Beach neighborhood, which was also home to the Beat writers in the 1950s. Thompson lived in San Francisco during this period, and credits the creative atmosphere and the community of writers there with his early literary success (Brinkley and McDonnell). This passage is one of many in which Duke’s experiences and attitudes overlap with those of the author.
“I nodded and smiled, half-watching the stunned reaction of the cop-crowd right next to me. They were stupid with shock. Here they were arguing with every piece of leverage they could command, for a room they’d already paid for––and suddenly their whole act gets side-swiped by some crusty drifter who looks like something out of an upper-Michigan hobo jungle. And he checks in with a handful of credit cards! Jesus! What’s happening in this world?”
Thompson portrays Las Vegas as the embodiment of capitalism in its purest form. It is even immune from certain rules of decorum that moderate capitalism’s influence in other parts of the country. For example, in mainstream American culture, police officers command a certain prestige although their earnings put them in the middle class. However, money is the sole determinant of prestige and power in Las Vegas. This is why Duke is able to reverse the roles and receive better treatment than the police officer —an experience he finds intensely satisfying.
“Even Bloomquist, far up front on the stage, seemed aware of a distant trouble. He stopped talking and peered nervously in the direction of the noise. Probably he thought a brawl had erupted—maybe a racial conflict of some kind, something that couldn’t be helped.”
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is first and foremost a travel narrative. However, Thompson finds many opportunities within this structure to critique various aspects of American culture and politics. Here, he briefly interrupts his account of the conference to mock the passive attitude of ‘squares’ like Bloomquist toward pressing social problems. He depicts Bloomquist as complacent about the social order. Thompson suggests that people like Bloomquist prefer to throw up their hands and write off societal injustices as “[things] that couldn’t be helped” rather than making an effort to address them.
“In an economy where Tom Jones can make $75,000 a week for two shows a night at Caesar’s, the palace guard is indispensable, and they don’t care who signs their paychecks. A gold mine like Vegas breeds its own army, like any other gold mine. Hired muscle tends to accumulate in fast layers around money/power poles … and big money, in Vegas, is synonymous with the Power to protect it.”
In this passage, Thompson points out the parallels between Las Vegas casinos and broader institutions of power. He notes that the hotel and casino at Caesar’s Palace has a Roman Empire theme. However, the casino’s immense wealth and absolute power over its guests evoke Rome in ways that go beyond its décor. Duke explains that in Las Vegas, money is the sole priority for businesses and individuals alike. This is why money attracts power to protect it, regardless of where it comes from. Duke’s scathing criticism of money and power in Las Vegas was even more pointed in the 1970s, when organized crime still played a major role in the city’s economy (Ainlay & Gabaldon).
“Let me explain it to you, let me run it down just briefly if I can. We’re looking for the American Dream, and we were told it was somewhere in this area. Well, we’re here looking for it, ‘cause they sent us out here all the way from San Francisco to look for it. That’s why they gave us this white Cadillac, they figure that we could catch up with it in that …”
Near the end of his trip to Las Vegas, Duke’s exhilaration turns to disappointment as he realizes that has learned and accomplished very little. Here, he poignantly explains to a waitress that the trip’s true purpose has been to find the American Dream, but the men feel just as lost here in Las Vegas as they were back home. His monologue includes a small inconsistency—Duke claims that he and his attorney came from San Francisco, when attentive readers will know that they actually departed from Los Angeles. This may be a reference to San Francisco’s reputation as the epicenter of 1960s counterculture. Duke seems to imply that the counterculture was one attempt to redefine the American Dream, and its decline has forced Duke to continue the quest elsewhere.
“In a scene where nobody with any ambition is really what he appears to be, there’s not much risk in acting like a king-hell freak.”
Throughout Thompson’s career, his identity as a self-proclaimed ‘freak’ was a major part of his public persona (Brinkley and McDonnell). In this passage, Duke collapses the distinction between counterculture ‘freaks’ and the business tycoons who seem, on the surface, to be living exemplars of mainstream values. He suggests that the prominent figures of the counterculture and of Las Vegas business recklessly pursue ambition, even if dishonesty is necessary to move ahead.
“Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for f**koffs and misfits—a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage.”
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is full of harsh criticisms directed toward a wide variety of targets, ranging from Las Vegas casinos to police officers to tourists. However, Duke saves his most biting criticism for himself and his fellow journalists. The the language in this passage is scatological and notably profane, even for a writer who is notorious for his willingness to push boundaries. Duke’s self-loathing at the end of the trip could be a result (or an amalgamation) of several factors: his failure to track down the American Dream, a hangover from his extreme drug binge, and/or a general sense of frustration with Las Vegas and American culture.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson.