Beat-ing Off: more book reviews
November 7th, 2008
The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson
Since Weldon just mentioned Hunter Thompson, it looks like I'd better
act quickly. This month's book review features the man's opus, which
I've casually paired against one of the novels of an earlier, and
equally famous, seeker of refuge (and, as it happens, local son),
Although their aesthetics are worlds apart (and although I couldn't
resist the title), I hold Thompson as a worthy companion read for the
beat writer. I like even better to put these novels in a broader arc,
and the antecedant that leaps most immediately to mind is Jerome K.
Jerome shipping friends around at the turn of the last century in
different conveyances. (Were I more ambitious about these of reviews,
I'd take on another of Mr. Jerome's for this series, but there's only
so much of that sort of thing I'm willing to take at a time.) Each
consists of the same thinly fictionalized autobiography; each is
presented with similar mixtures of escape, male bonding, comedy, and
philosophical interjections. The escape is for the characters, and
the hideout isn't so much the wilderness as it is civilization's
fringe, not a matter of pitting brawn against the savage forces of
nature, but rather a retreat to a place safe enough and independent
enough to explore the world from the writer's own perspective. Over
the arc of these novels, this required increasingly drastic measures
for the getting away. Late Victoriana could be ditched in a
comfortable outing down the Thames. Kerouac needed the deep woods and
old weird America to hide himself in, and only thirteen years later,
it took Hunter S. Thompson copious amounts of drugs. I also like
imagining this progression of philosophies, which are poked in as
wistful or wondering asides, and over the intertextual century, there
is a growing refutation of the status quo: from ambivalent glimpses
of the human condition, to an escape from Western philosophy, to, in
Thompson's case, a horrified rebuke of it. Read the three of them
together, perhaps, as commentary on how invasive society has become
(and how quickly).
Jack Kerouac came into into my literary purview over ten years ago,
when I combined my meager estate with my wife's. On page twenty-five
or so, I found the bookmark that I placed in this copy of The Dharma
Bums in 1997, where I stopped reading it the first time. It's more
atmospheric and philosophical than it is tensely plottedit doesn't
demand a breathless page-whipping race to the finale. It's a buddy
story, and a travel novel, which does ramble from somewhere to
somwhere else, but not with any particular urgency. Kerouac writes
himself in as Ray Smith, and the story details his friendship and
experiences with Japhy Ryder, together exploring Buddhist philosophy
as well as the natural landscape of California and the Pacific
northwest. Ryder is based on a real writer of Kerouac's acquaintance
(who is still writing in fact), as, evidently, are all the other
characters in the novel, not that the knowledge would have helped me
much to keep score. I liked most of the odd bastards, and if they
weren't a particularly responsible bunch, they were benevolent, and
they seemed like great fun to be around. In the book, stuff happens,
and the friendship between Ray and Japhy evolves over time, but any
given ten pages of this book give a similar satisfaction as any other
ten, and it's natural to limit the reading to an easy evening,
pleasant to pick up and just as easy to put down. Which is probably
what happened eleven years ago.
In The Dharma Bums, Kerouac's embrace of Zen Buddhism is a sort that
reaffirms his own lifestyle, absent any spiritual effort that doesn't
satisfy him. Not that it didn't take some personal effort, but it did
often feel self-serving, and maybe even a little self-aggrandizing. I
could see the author as that mild, friendly, half-baked,
humbler-than-thou sort you sometimes find at parties. It's like a
Bohemian slacker superstar version of, say, Deion Sanders glorifying
Jesus with his touchdown-scoring awesomeness. Admittedly, I like
Jack's sense of splendor a lot better, and his voice is nice enough
too, moving along at an elemental groove, and able to summon as much
child-like enthusiasm for immense natural wonders as he can for
simple human pleasures. Although I distrusted the spirituality, and
found the book a little skimpy on cerebral jollies, Kerouac is out to
find and celebrate the things of the world that are still pure and
good, and in his travels he always gets there, and it's nice to be
along on the trek. The solitude and the friendship, the spirituality
and the beauty, they all get through just fine.
I'm not just a newbie to Kerouac. Prior to cracking Fear and Loathing
in Las Vegas, I'd never read Hunter S. Thompson, which no doubt gets
me behind on the mythology. What can I say? In some ways I've lived a
sheltered life. But please don't think of me as an ignorant naif,
instead imagine me as that great legal fantasy of an impartial juror,
a man who, but for the surprising exception of the famous case at
hand, is relatively well-informed. Well, another disclosure: maybe
not that well-informed. But you know what I mean.
Fear and Loathing is a binge through sin city, following Thompson (as
Raoul Duke) as he, with his attorney (one Dr. Gonzo) in tow,
ostensibly reports on the fabulous Mint 400 motorcycle race and a
DA's conference on the threat of illegal drugs. Pursuits, as the
subtitle goes, of the American dream? Well maybe, but more on that in
a moment or two. First, an objective reviewer such as myself must
address the drug theme, which is what inflates maybe a dozen pages of
journalism and commentary to something novel length. Now, I don't
have much of a purchase point with such high-level debaucheryat no
moment do Duke and Gonzo escape the influence of substances swallowed
or inhaled, and maintaining that state requires some high level of
industry on both their partsbut I've spent enough irresponsible time
with (mostly) legal drugs to appreciate the motif. It's not quite a
comedy, but it's got some good comic timing, centered about the
recklessness and the shrewd insanity of a drunk. I got some quality
laughs out of the characters' carefully debated illogic, and the
shoestring confidence games they had to wield to get out of those
same scrapes they got themselves into in the first place. The
alarming acid hallucinations fit in well enough as metaphor, or as
grounding, but I'm still square enough to have been horrified at the
random experimentation, ingestion of industrial chemicals, and some
of the physical effects of their extreme dilettantism.
[Twiffer adds: "[In Vegas,] staying drunk the whole time is a
necessary defense mechanism. viewing that sort of constant, base
debauchery askew through the lens of LSD […] it speaks to a strength
of character and inherent faith that, deep down, people are good, to
take such a trip and not wind up either a hermit or a raving lunatic."]
Thompson's comic voice does have a familiar tone, and I'm not sure if
it's recognized from film, or from a thousand next-day accounts of
foolish escapades (or, for that matter, from however many of
Thompson's intellectual heirs). He conducts that timeless brilliance
of "acting nonchalant" as the world goes to shit around him like a
maestro, and he's mastered the classic art of puncturing assumed
dignity with irreverence. He sets a considered pause here to frame a
gag, and there, he's got the contrasts of outward calm against the
thoroughly absurd or of drug-addled mania over the bland and mundane.
The language on the whole is witty and apposite, and it utilizes
mock-seriousness very well. Our heroes sincerely throw around words
like "vile," "swine," and "maniac," which are funny on their own, and
on a higher level, the sober truths (and ironies) of them are
carefully considered, even as they pertain to the protagonists' own
selves. (Their petty criminalities against The Man are funny by
similar measures, especially in that town, but one or two innocents
may have been abused. This was much less amusing.)
But Fear and Loathing is not just for the jokes, and there are sober
truths behind it, truths that need to lie behind to keep the book
from achieving anything more than a blivot of props and gimmicks. I
would have preferred a firmer bedrock of substance: there were ten
pages of hijinks for every three-paragraph insight, and here, the
insights are the brilliant parts. I'll admit there are some fine
juxtapositions and contrasts, but maybe there are too many left for
the reader to decipher. Vegas is portrayed as your standard-issue den
of iniquity, but the point's made that it's an ugly conservative
version of sin, a real cop's-night-out sort of lawlessness:
implicitly violent, outright objectifying, and personally destructive
in an orderly and artificial sort of way, from which the real (and
presumably less harmful) weirdos are exiled. You might call it an
affirmation of genuine feakiness, although I didn't come out
approving of Gonzo and Duke's lifestyle either, and these two men
carefully refute the drug-fueled idealism of the previous decade's
youth movements as well. "The American dream," when they find it, is
burnt out and irrelevant to any personal quest that either Horatio
Alger or Timothy Leary may have dreamed up. It's just a dangerous
journey with not much at the end of it. You might say it takes lunacy
to show the lunacy.
As a final note I found the lamented demise of 60s idealism a bit
tired in 2008the boomers have reinvented their generation half a
dozen times by nowbut I expect it was potent in 1971. I have no
reason to believe, however, that Thompson himself ever gave up his
integrity. Before I finished writing this, and apropos to Weldon's
previous post, I came across his 1994 eulogy of Nixon, now the second
piece of his I've read, and I recommend it. It's brilliant without
all the drug gimmicks.
Digested classics: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson
November 8 2008
We were somewhere on the edge of the desert when the drugs took hold.
The sky was full of screaming bats and my attorney, the Samoan, was
pouring beer on his chest. I hit the brakes on the Great Red Shark.
"You drive," I said. No point mentioning the bats. The bastard would
see them soon enough.
There was still 100 miles to go and we had to get to Vegas by 4pm to
claim our press suite for the Mint 400. A New York magazine had taken
care of the reservations and the editor had given me $300 in expenses
which I'd already spent on two bags of grass, five sheets of acid, 75
hits of mescaline, a salt-shaker of cocaine, a galaxy of uppers,
downers and screamers and a bottle of ether in LA before we left.
It was the Samoan that saw the hitchhiker and said: "Let's give this
Okie a lift." The kid got in and started talking. "What's the story?"
he asked. I took a half dozen tabs mixed with a few black bombers and
shot a gram of scag into my eyeball.
"What's the motherfuckin' story?" I laughed. "There is no
motherfuckin' story. We are the fuckin' story. This is gonzo, pal.
We're chasing the American dream. Right to the motherfuckin' end of
The kid looked freaked and we dumped him on the edge of Vegas. The
Samoan pulled out a .357 Magnum and put it to my head. "As your
attorney, I strongly advise you to drive to the hotel at top speed,"
he yelled, pumping 27 amyls and a quart of tequila into his aorta.
"And don't even think of trying to outdo me on the narcs again."
"What are your names?" the clerk inquired, as the Great Red Shark
skidded to a halt by the front reception after smashing through the
hotel's plate glass doors.
"What's it matter?" I cried. "Call me Mr Thompson. Call me Raoul
Duke. Call me Dr Gonzo. Just give me the goddam room."
We went upstairs and threw the bag full of drugs on the bed. I eyed
up the Samoan, before pulling out a blade and chopping my arm off and
ramming some mescaline and ether into the stump. "I warned you," my
attorney said, amputating his leg and plunging a speedball into his
femoral artery. We'd already been awake for three days, and hours and
hours of catatonic despair lay ahead.
"We ain't gonna make the dune race," the Samoan said, "ain't got the
Vincent Black Shadow and no one can see shit in that dustbowl anyway."
The snakes were freaking me out. But not as much as the polar bears
or the girls doing their Friends of Debbie Reynolds impressions by
the slots. Maybe I needed to go easy on the psychedelics. I called
Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg but they were too whacked out to
answer, so I took a fist full of downers.
"Don't wimp out on me," the Samoan yelled, turning "Sympathy for the
Devil" up to 11 on the radio and ripping open my guts to pump out the
barbs. "This is serious countercultural satire. This is the 70s, man.
The hippies have flaked and the reactionaries have won. There ain't
no reality more twisted than Nixon's American dream. So don't get
real, get surreal. I'll see you when I've sodomised a teenager."
My head started spinning and vomit seeped from my neck through a hole
in the windpipe. I was fucked. The magazine was gonna kill me for not
finding out who won the motherfuckin' race, the hotel was gonna have
my ass for credit card fraud and the police were gonna bust me. I had
to do a runner. I chopped off my head, blew a couple of quarts of
nitrous oxide into my lungs and headed for the lobby.
"There's a telegram for you, Dr Gonzo," the clerk said.
It was from the attorney. We had a new story. A story about a story.
A story about a story about us covering the district attorney's
narcotics convention at the Moonlight Hotel. Unlimited money. A brand
new Caddy, the White Whale.
"So you made it?" said the Samoan, slicing open a live hobo and
removing his adrenal gland. "Fancy some adrenochrome?" Another five
months of being insane. What the fuck. Why not? I took out the .357
Magnum and blew away an iguana before blowing a hole in my arm. "Best
way in," I laughed.
This gonzo shit was wearing thin. Sure, we went to the DA's
convention and found they knew jack shit about drugs. Everyone knows
marijuana's just for stoner losers. Sure, we got the locals a bit
pissed at us on the freeway. Sure, we kited some cheques and did more
drugs. Sure, we fooled the chambermaid into thinking we were
undercover cops. What better cover was there than a pair of drug
fiends? Sure, I bought an ape. But it was all getting a bit tired, a
bit predictable. I tried writing in a new format.
Duke: We're looking for the American dream.
Waitress: It's down by the Old Psychiatrists' Club.
That didn't work either. The only people left reading were a few old
Rolling Stone heads that still thought that sex'n'drugs'n'rock'n'roll
were gonna change the world. I had to get out of Vegas. I chopped off
my remaining limbs, grinding the last of the drugs into the open
wounds, bounced my torso into the front seat of the White Whale and
raced a DC8 down the runway.