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

6 Apr

This post contains part X 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.

Thompson finally locates the American Dream.Image from cosmicsmudge.com

Thompson finally locates the American Dream.
Image from cosmicsmudge.com

In many respects, Gonzo journalism embodies and embraces the final step in the mainstream absorption (and subsequent commodification) of countercultural beliefs. Gonzo journalism depicts a grotesque web of countercultural immorality; nonetheless, we as readers enjoy vicarious participation in Thompson’s crime sprees, sprees which are actually financed by major media outlets, including Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone magazine.[18] While sitting poolside at a Beverly Hills hotel, Thompson receives a call from “some total stranger in New York, telling me to go to Las Vegas[,] expenses be damned” and then “another total stranger” hands him “$300 raw cash for no reason at all” (11). Thompson chalks this up to “Free Enterprise. The American Dream. […] Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism” (12).

Kerouac himself attempted to “test the American dream by trying to pin down its promise of unlimited freedom by following the example of Dean Moriarty” (Charters xxi). Kesey strove to “claim whatever he can rightly get by being man enough to take it” because there “is no limit to the American trip” (Wolfe 37, 112). But driving on the outskirts of Las Vegas in 1972, Thompson seems to have finally nailed down the exact location of the American Dream, what the counterculturalists had been looking for all along—“Big black building, right on Paradise: twenty-four-hour-a-day violence, drugs”—yes, unlimited freedom and consumption (Thompson 167). In a seven-page chapter towards the end of Fear and Loathing, Thompson’s narrative reporting breaks down and we are left with an editor’s note introducing us to a “verbatim” tape recording of Thompson and his attorney as they question some locals on the whereabouts of “the American Dream” (161, 165). Through this, they are led to a seedy joint called the “Old Psychiatrist’s Club” that had “burned down about three years ago” (168). This section encapsulates what Thompson believes to be the empty promise of the American Dream, one that is plagued by corruption and sinister greed.

In the face of such hopelessness, it is little wonder that Thompson resorts to a reluctant embrace of the Dream itself. Thompson biographer Joseph Sommers claims Thompson discovers that “with success can also come self-loathing” (Sommers). Thompson accepts the corporate financing of his lifestyle in exchange for a chance to hunt down the roots of what exactly about America makes this lifestyle possible. He is by far more honest and candid about the realities of American culture than either Kerouac or Kesey, but Thompson nonetheless arrives at a grudging acceptance of the counterculture’s absorption into the mainstream. Commodification of countercultural ideals within the mainstream is by no means a phenomenon that emerged in the 1970s; rather, Fear and Loathing represents an admission that the forces of its own dissolution had been embedded in the counterculture from its inception.

[18] Though Rolling Stone began as an underground publication in 1967, by the early 1970s it had become “a huge commercial success” (Lyte 212).

Next Post: Bringing it All Back Home I: Counterculture, Commodified


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