Archives for category: Travel

I’d not read Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in at least twenty years and I’m not sure if before this week I’d ever actually finished the thing. Now I have, and on a certain level, I think I might be too old for it. It’s one of those books like Catcher in the Rye and possibly On the Road that are best enjoyed before the sheer irresponsibility of the story in the telling is too obvious. In the heart of Thompson’s drug-addled tale of not reporting on two events for which his alter ego Raoul Duke is paid, he makes a stunning indictment of what has become of the American Dream™.

In one of the novel’s more cogent paragraphs, Thompson spells out the moment when Hell’s Angels faced off on the Oakland/Berkeley border with anti-war protesters in 1965, somewhat to the detriment of the nascent anti-war movement and to the greater detriment of the American Left in general. Later, he starts discussing those Timothy Leary took down with him, followers ‘who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit’ , certain that some one or some thing was ‘tending the light at the end of the tunnel’ (p. 178).

He goes on to gather several leaders together who followed in the failure of Leary to unite the movement: Jesus, Manson, Hell’s Angels leader Sonny Barger, and concludes with the book’s most potent idea, ‘…no point in looking back. The question, as always, is now…?’ Whatever we’re going to do, we have to do it, rather than bemoaning that we haven’t.

While I put Duke and Dr. Gonzo’s tales of their American nightmare in an unfavourable bucket with Kerouac and Salinger (both of whom wrote some brilliant, long-lasting work, just not those novels for which they’re best remembered), another comparison that comes to mind is Sterne’s Sentimental Journey through France and Italy. In a similar way to Sterne, Thompson invites us into a series of vignettes that insist to the reader that they’re actually going somewhere, but don’t ever really make it there. Whereas Sterne’s volume ends without ever getting to Italy (as promised in the title), and possibly in the middle of a sentence, Thompson ends his without ever producing (as far as the reader can tell) the articles his character promised. The expectation from a book that is at least tangentially about writing is that there will be a submission and maybe even a reaction to it. Thompson subverts this by his alter ego barely attending or participating in the events he goes to Las Vegas to cover. To be fair, there is one extended sequence in which Duke and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo, attend one of the presentations of the National District Attorneys Association’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (thoroughly ripped, as the two characters are for the entirety of the book), so our expectations are only partially subverted.

FandLinLVSubtitled A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, what strikes the reader (or at least this reader) about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the savagery with which Thompson/ Duke treats primarily the female characters and really most of the book’s secondary characters. One way of looking at the nastiness of the interactions with the waitress in the chapter ‘Back Door Beauty & Finally a Bit of Serious Drag Racing on the Strip’ is that Thompson wants to implicate all of us in the nastiness that America became after the “Main Era” ended. The Main Era is what he names that time in the 60s when ‘You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning’ (p. 68). He continues, ‘We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.’ (I love the idea of a ‘steep hill in Las Vegas,’ a place in the middle of a desert and nearly as flat as The Netherlands.)

So that moment of mind-altered optimism was undone, or undid itself through subverted protest, Nixon’s treachery, an unwinnable war, and the crackdown of the original war on drugs that Nixon instigated with the help of Elvis Presley. But in the retelling, Thompson says, yes, it all fell apart and to a one, even me, we became nasty and crass.

Thompson shares that, beyond the Strip, you find ‘the shoddy limbo of North Vegas…out there with the gunsels, the hustlers, the drug cripples and all the other losers,’ and here Duke and Gonzo drop into the North Star Coffee Lounge for late night eats. Their waitress, extensively described as, ‘large in every way, long sinewy arms, and a brawler’s jawbone…A burned out caricature of Jane Russell: big head of dark hair, face slashed with lipstick and a 48 Double-E chest that was probably spectacular about twenty years ago…but now she was strapped up in a giant pink elastic brassiere that showed like a bandage through the sweaty rayon of her uniform, (p. 158)’ finds herself on the receiving end of a pass from Gonzo, a napkin with ‘Back Door Beauty’ scrawled on it. On receipt, she lays into our heroes with vitriol. Duke just watches while Gonzo deflects the waitress’ accusations and cuts the receiver off the pay phone with a switchblade when she threatens to call the cops.

Duke understands that Gonzo has struck a nerve, ‘The glazed look in her eyes said her throat had been cut. She was still in the grip of paralysis when we left,’ but doesn’t comment or dissuade Gonzo from his behaviour. We as readers follow along, but Thompson not only lets his narrator off the hook, he relates the events that follow as being drawn verbatim from a tape recording transcribed by the editor. He doesn’t give Duke the opportunity to respond and lets himself off the hook at the same time.

From a wider perspective, Thompson’s after roping the reader into some kind of complicity. The more you enter the heads and the behaviours of the main characters the less you can say that you’re not part of the great destruction being wrought. Thompson attempts, through the excess of his protagonists, to separate the freaks – the ones who stepped out of the mainstream before that wave receded – from the normals who flock for whatever reason to Las Vegas’s casinos from the rest of the country. However, through that excess, he implicates all who see themselves on some version of the correct side of that divide. To what we now call coastal elites as well as those citizens of flyover states, Thompson seems to say: ‘You’re all in on this. We’re all in on this. Through silence or engagement. And I’m in on it as well.’

I’m not sure that this is what the man who famously asserted, ‘I wouldn’t advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me’ meant to imply.

I wanted to add something about how Thompson’s anti-Nixon stance (against all hypocrisy propounded and promoted by the Nixon White House) had come back to taunt him when George W. Bush was selected for a second time, and might have contributed to his suicide a month into Shrub’s second term, but this doesn’t seem to be borne out by a suicide note which indicated that 67 was ‘17 years more than [he] needed or wanted.’ On the other hand, In October 2004, Thompson wrote: ‘Nixon was a professional politician, and I despised everything he stood for—but if he were running for president this year against the evil Bush–Cheney gang, I would happily vote for him.’ Six months after Thompson’s death, there was a hell of a memorial.

In 1973, Skylab, America's first space station, was launched aboard a two-stage Saturn V vehicle. Saturn IB rockets were used to launch three different three-man crews to the Skylab space station.

Today is the 32nd anniversary of the Challenger disaster. You’ve probably seen something in the news about it. I wrote this in the Summer of 2015 with the desire that some musician friend or other might set it to music, possibly in advance of the 30th anniversary. (One of these days maybe I’ll commission Unwoman when one of her Kickstarter bonuses is to arrange the poem of the funder’s choice.)

I Dreamt of Yuri Gagarin
Space Age Folk Songs #1

Gazing up at the moon
I dreamt of Yuri Gagarin (1)
Dreaming himself of lunar kolchazi (2)
The grand collective cocoon

Chorus:
This is the space age
And we are here to go (3)
Poyechali, Poyechali (4)
To the next rendez-vous

I dreamt of spinning space stations
Stepped from giants’ shoulders
Through solar paneled portals
Of interplanetary migrations

Of Mars and of Titan and Pluto
I dream of Sirius and Centauri
Goldilocks’ exoplanets
Of light speed and black holes

Of the ones who dared and knew,
Komarov (5) and Gargarin;
Gus Grissom (6), McAuliffe (7), McNair (8),
The dream was bigger than any shuttle or Soyuz

1. First human in space, died testing a MiG jet fighter.
2. Russian: Collective farm
3. William S. Burroughs at the first Nova Convention speaking about the space program
4. Russian: Let's go (Поехали - uttered when ground control indicated to Gagarin that Vostok 1 had lift off)
5. Soviet colleague of Gagarin - died in a crash after orbiting earth in a faulty ship
6. US astronaut who died in a pre-flight test of Apollo 1.
7 and 8. US astronauts who died in the Challenger disaster.