No Mercy: Gonzo Journalism on a Failed Revolution

4 Apr

This post contains part IX of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

Ralph Steadman's take on Hunter ThompsonImage from Examiner.com

Ralph Steadman’s take on Thompson
Image from Examiner.com


Thompson’s writing exposes the inherent hypocrisies of the counterculture movement and helps explain why, only four years after the hope and rage of 1968, the movement had become a washed-up mockery of itself—and inadvertently paved the way for a conservative revolution. Suri points out that “the counterculture’s mainstream roots raised expectations for extensive political reform, but those expectations were ultimately a victim of the coercive leverage exerted by the figures who dominated the mainstream […] Rapid political change required something much more akin to social revolution than what the international counterculture could offer” (Suri 53). The leaders of the counterculture ended up as corrupt and manipulative as the mainstream political figures they railed against—instead of coercing followers into racist status-quos and unnecessary war, they instead lead them into extreme indulgence and a near-deadly narcissism.

Thompson expresses disappointment with the so-called leaders of the counterculture movement, especially the great Chief himself, Ken Kesey: “Tune in, freak out, get beaten. It’s all in Kesey’s Bible. . . . The Far Side of Reality” (Thompson 89). Throughout Fear and Loathing Thompson provides an echo to the Pranksters’ final refrain—“WE BLEW IT!”—and adds to the mix his own interpretation of the consequences. After the worldwide civil unrest of 1968, government leaders “rebuilt their authority around commitments to restore rationality, reasonableness, and domestic peace” (Suri 63). Needless to say, calls for “law and order” were immensely appealing to the “silent majority” of Nixon voters who lived in dread of the violent chaos that the countercultural movement had come to represent. Thompson writes from a place of disillusionment as he grapples with the fact that the movement he once believed in has been left flailing and leaderless while a conservative climate of fear and loathing had taken hold of America.

Though Thompson expresses contempt for the failures of the counterculture, he owes his very career to the writers who helped create it, especially Kerouac and Wolfe. Thompson’s writing evolved out of both Beat and New Journalism traditions and serves to cast them in a new light. The language in Fear and Loathing is an amalgamation of both styles—simultaneously self-reflective and bitterly observant of the twisted country around him. He has adopted the free-flowing, impulsive, and descriptive language of the Beats, only he uses this language style to ironically describe the depraved and decadent scenes of Las Vegas, taking the concept of “authentic” moments to a new and jolting level:

The Circus-Circus [casino] is what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. […] So you’re down on the main floor playing blackjack […] when suddenly you chance to look up, and there, right smack above your head is a half-naked fourteen-year-old girl being chased through the air by a snarling wolverine […] This madness goes on and on, but nobody seems to notice. The gambling action runs twenty-four hours a day […], and the circus never ends. […] No, this is not a good town for psychedelic drugs. Reality itself is too twisted. (Thompson 46-7).

For Thompson, the nightmare reality of Vegas—a town manufactured on artifice—is simply too real, too much for him to deal with in any state of mind.

Thompson also operates within the traditions of New Journalism, attempting to relay the twisted reality he perceives in a way that provides a “total sensory impact” for the reader (Kallan 7). While Wolfe attempted to reach an “electronic, media-bred audience” rather paradoxically through print, Thompson, too, channels the now-ubiquitous medium of television as he writes, fully embracing the New Journalistic desire to be the “host” in his own story (1-2). In contrast to Wolfe’s passive (though highly subjective) reporting, Thompson’s subjectivity takes on a life of its own as he seeks to imbed himself “within the cultural moment” and become a participating member of the events taking place (Sommers). The participatory aspect is as vital to the definition of Gonzo journalism as the practice of “investigating crucial events under fire and drugs” (Jirón-King 5). Thompson brazenly inserts his own “spin” on the events around him, shaping a “cinematographic ideal that emphasizes a narrative of disruption” (7). Thompson has taken the literary approach of the countercultural writers before him and adapted it to expose the sordid truth behind their ideals of authenticity and beauty.

In a sense, Thompson has taken the Beat fascination with outlaws and Kesey’s “outlaw fantasy” to its logical extreme. Kerouac romanticized Dean’s antisocial, immoral, and even illegal behavior; Wolfe depicted Kesey’s actual flight from the law and subsequent exile in Mexico. Thompson, it seems, has made an entire career out of illegal behavior. His writing comes out of “a generation committed to the ethos of dissent rather than consent,” and he takes full advantage of this to push at any boundary—legal, social, or ethical—that gets in his way (4). It is important to note that Thompson is a “criminal” in the same vein as the innumerable members of the Probation Generation; unlike the Keseyites, however, Thompson makes no idealistic claims to the moral high ground in his behavior. “Sympathy?” he says, “Not for me. No mercy for a criminal freak in Las Vegas. This place is like the Army: the shark ethic prevails—eat the wounded. In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity” (Thompson 72).

Thompson’s depiction of Las Vegas as the seedy and immoral underbelly of the American Dream goes a long way in justifying his own criminal behavior. From Thompson’s point of view, running amuck in Las Vegas is an inevitable consequence of embracing failed idealism in a corrupt society. “I am not guilty. All I did was take your gibberish seriously,” Thompson says in a dialogue with the Lord.[17] “My primitive Christian instincts have made me a criminal” (87). This spiritual crisis that Thompson encounters right before his decision to crash the narcotics conference may in fact be a subtle jab at those who exploit religion—on the right and the left—to the point where its very ideals become meaningless. “You’d better take care of me, Lord,” Thompson warns, “because if you don’t you’re going to have me on your hands” (87). Thompson has reached Kesey’s “Edge City,” a place so sense-driven and horrific that he is unsure whether he will be able to return from it.


[17] Though one might imagine Thompson addressing Kesey himself, whom Wolfe often portrays as having a God complex throughout his role as a countercultural leader.


Next Post: Right on Paradise: The American Dream at the End of the Road

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