Raoul Duke and his attorney speed down the highway in a bright red convertible. They are near the town of Barstow, about 100 miles from Las Vegas. Duke is just starting to feel the effects of some drugs that he has taken, and he is hallucinating bats flying around his head. Duke, a journalist, explains that he and his attorney are on their way Las Vegas because he has been commissioned to write a story about the Mint 400, an off-road motorcycle race in the desert. Duke and his attorney spent the previous night stocking up on drugs, including ether, amyls, cocaine, pills, LSD, and marijuana. When they arrive in Vegas, they plan to meet a Portuguese photographer named Lacerda, who will give them more information about the assignment.
On their way, the two men pick up a young hitchhiker, and they immediately become anxious that the boy will realize that they are high and report them to the police. Although the hitchhiker is initially excited to ride in a convertible for the first time, his companions' outlandish behavior starts to frighten him. Duke tries to converse with the hitchhiker in hopes of convincing him of their good intentions, but he only makes the young man feel more uncomfortable. Duke explains to the hitchhiker how he got word of this particular assignment. He had been drinking with his attorney in a hotel bar in Beverly Hills when his editor called and offered him the story. Duke's attorney insisted on joining him, and they made a plan to stock up on drugs and buy a motorcycle in order to participate in the race themselves. Duke says that he wanted to buy a powerful model called the Vincent Black Shadow.
Duke continues describing his journey from Beverly Hills. The sporting magazine that hired him agreed to give him $300 for trip expenses, which was not enough to purchase a motorcycle. Duke's attorney was initially dejected, but Duke chastised his attorney, who is Samoan, for not appreciating the beauty of America - a place where an exciting assignment in Las Vegas is only a phone call away. They decided to go to Las Vegas without the Vincent Black Shadow.
The men then bought their drugs of choice and worked on finding a fast car and a high-quality tape recorder for interviews. These were somewhat difficult to round up because many stores are closed on Fridays, but they finally found a car rental agency and an electronics store that carried the items in question. Duke and his attorney were both extremely drunk and high while shopping, and the salespeople at both establishments were deeply unsettled by their state. Nevertheless, the electronics salesman conducted the transaction for the recorder through a cracked-open door. Later, the man at the car rental agency was shocked when Duke nearly crashed the convertible into a gas pump while driving in reverse at forty-five miles per hour, but still let him go.
The men considered buying priest’s robes, which they thought “might come in handy in Las Vegas,” but the costume stores were closed and they felt uncomfortable burglarizing a church (14). Once their preparation was complete, they sped east on the Pasadena freeway, trying to hide the pipe from which they were smoking.
Duke feels a brief pang of pity for the hitchhiker because he has never ridden in a convertible before and fantasizes about giving the car to the young stranger. However, Duke quickly decides against this when he realizes that it will probably lead to trouble for the hitchhiker. Instead, he starts daydreaming about drag-racing the car, which he has nicknamed "the Great Red Shark," up and down the Last Vegas Strip. Duke is thrilled about this trip because he believes it will allow him to embrace life’s possibilities and live the American Dream.
Duke’s attorney asks for his heart medicine (that is, amyls). Both men snort a few pills, and Duke tells the hitchhiker that they are really traveling to Las Vegas to murder someone named Savage Henry. At this point, the hitchhiker has had enough and leaps out of the convertible while it is still moving. Relatively unfazed, Duke his attorney eat some LSD blotters, after which Duke’s attorney tries to open a salt shaker of cocaine. Unfortunately, most of the cocaine blows away in the wind, which makes Duke accuse his attorney of being a narcotics agent. The attorney reacts to Duke's allegation by pulling out a .357 Magnum and threatening to kill his client, but after a moment of tension, both men laugh the incident off.
Duke sees a line in his notebook that reminds him of Joe Frazier, a boxer known for defeating Muhammad Ali in the ‘Fight of the Century.’ He meditates on how that fight was “a very painful experience in every way, a proper end to the sixties” (22). By the time the men arrive at the Mint Hotel in Las Vegas, the LSD has kicked in and Duke struggles to compose himself so he can check in. Despite his best efforts not to attract attention, he rambles at the hotel receptionist, who sees ‘bedrock crazies’ all the time and is therefore nonplussed. Duke introduces his attorney as Dr. Gonzo. The receptionist informs them that their suite isn’t ready, but that someone would like to see Duke. She hands him a message from Lacerda, which Duke and "Dr. Gonzo" read in the bar over cocktails. Duke convinces himself that the carpet is soaked in blood and cannot bring himself to walk on it. However, Duke's attorney urges him to speak to some journalists at a nearby table so that he can get his press badge.
Duke and his attorney settle into their hotel room and order lots of food from room service. Duke feels like the acid is beginning to wear off, even though he is still fascinated by an elaborate sign outside the hotel window. Duke's attorney reminds him that just a few minutes ago, he terrified the other journalists by shouting about reptiles. Duke's attorney defused the situation by claiming that Duke was drunk and needed a cold shower.
The men eat some mescaline and try to watch the news, but they find a report on the Laos invasion too unsettling to continue. Duke's attorney calls down for the Shark and drives Duke along the Strip, but the attorney soon passes out and Duke has to take over driving. He turns on the radio and enjoys watching the world go by, although he is annoyed when the DJ plays an old military song.
Duke hears gunshots and realizes that the Mint Gun Club is holding target practice. He impulsively decides to enter the Great Red Shark in the off-road race with his attorney as the driver. At the registration desk, the attendant is very hostile to Duke and his attorney, refusing to let them register. They decide not to press the issue because the attendant has a gun.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas occupies the ambiguous space between a novel and a nonfiction narrative. Its plot is based on a real trip that Hunter S. Thompson took with his friend, the attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta, in the spring of 1971. Like his protagonist Raoul Duke, Thompson had been assigned by Sports Illustrated to cover the Mint 400, a motorcycle and dune-buggy race outside Las Vegas. The original assignment was short and simple: Thompson was to write the captions for a photo essay about the race. However, it quickly grew into a lengthy feature that addressed a variety of issues including drug use, capitalism, the end of the 1960s, and American culture. Sports Illustrated refused to publish Thompson's piece, but it was accepted by Rolling Stone and published in two parts in November 1971.
Fear and Loathing is a seminal text of Gonzo Journalism, a genre that Thompson himself pioneered. In the 1960s and 1970s, journalism underwent a renaissance, with writers like Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, and Joan Didion publishing long feature pieces that borrowed stylistic techniques from fiction. This kind of writing became known as New Journalism. Although these reporters used unconventional stylistic techniques, they were still expected to maintain journalistic accuracy and remain as unbiased as possible (Stiles & Harris 313).
Gonzo Journalism went a step beyond New Journalism, however. While both styles employed literary techniques that were not typically associated with news writing at the time, Gonzo journalists participated in the events that they covered. In Gonzo articles, the author would often become an important character in the narrative and develop his or her own persona throughout the article. In Fear and Loathing, for example, the plot does not center around the Mint 400, but rather around Raoul Duke’s thoughts and experiences while he is covering the event. Additionally, Gonzo journalists were more likely to fictionalize their writing and were more open to stretching the truth than their New journalist counterparts (Stiles & Harris 312).
One of Fear and Loathing’s defining characteristics is the narrator’s cynicism about human nature. Duke is deeply suspicious of other people’s motives; his misanthropy even extends to himself. While under the influence of drugs, he suspects that both the hitchhiker and his attorney intend to report him to the police, and he is wary of the security guards at the Mint 400 registration because they are carrying guns. Of course, Duke also recognizes the potential for violence in himself: he ruminates about murdering the hitchhiker and he frequently affects a callous attitude toward violent situations; for example, he brushes off the death of a pedestrian that delays his trip to the electronics store.
However, Duke’s attitude towards violence is more complex and contradictory than it may seem at first glance. Despite his indifference towards the dead pedestrian, he is deeply disturbed by a news report about the invasion of Laos. He frequently refers to police officers as ‘Nazis’ and ‘pigs’, and laments that the peace-and-love ideals of the 1960s have lost their hold on American culture. Thompson reveals that despite Duke’s noble ideals, his actions and words are often hypocritical; he has a healthy sense of irony but is still struggling to figure out how to embody the ideas he espouses. Meanwhile, minor characters who are sober are often just as immoral; the electronics-store attendant and the car salesman both conduct business with Duke despite his obvious intoxication.