For literary geeks The Literary Encyclopedia is the kind of canonical sources you may cite to emphatically punctuate a statement, and the page on HST is a fine page indeed. We’ll take a look at the birth of Gonzo and the book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
The encyclopedia entry is written by William Stephenson (book, library link) who teaches utopianism, science fiction and literary theory at the University of Cheste. He is hardcore and has the cred.
Check out his book (Library Link).
The entry describes the birth of Gonzo Journalism as such…
Gonzo journalism originated in 1970 when Thompson, under deadline pressure, sent his unedited notes to Scanlan’s magazine (a short-lived satirical monthly) for the article “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”, later reprinted in Thompson’s anthology The Great Shark Hunt (Thompson, 1980, 29-43). When, to his surprise, Scanlan’s published his notes verbatim, Thompson thought he was finished as a professional journalist. However, the article was very well received and his friend the Boston Globe editor Bill Cardoso described it as “totally gonzo”. Thompson saw in this word an ideal brand name, because of its connotations of craziness and excess; he realized that actual or faked spontaneity had commercial potential. He went on to develop the Gonzo techniques we find in Vegas: a stoned, desperate protagonist, usually a journalist, at the centre of the action, “a frantic loser, inept and half-psychotic, somewhat after the manner of Céline”; a similarly desperate sidekick for this journalist, allowing for hilarious dialogues and double-act routines; sentences that stumble or break down altogether as the protagonists’ perception falters; outrageous, picaresque non-plots in which the doomed quest to cover the story becomes the story; bizarre encounters fuelled by industrial quantities of alcohol and drugs.
There are interesting ideas that are worthy of consideration in the passage.
For starters Hunter thought he was doomed as was saved by the note taking. The codification of the stream of consciousness on the frontlines lacking the refinement of editorial reflection certainly has been an element of his identifiable style saved his ass and started a literary genre. The lesson, always try. Send in what you got, and perhaps the great magnet will look upon thee with favor. And take good notes.
There is also the feeling of doom, which is understandable especially for those that work with horrid deadlines, are prone to overdoing things, and try to articulate the unintelligible as a profession. And Gonzo Journalism is hard to beat when it comes to professionally articulating the unintelligible under a deadline.
Most importantly the archetypal Gonzo protagonist, picaresque, doomed with (or without a partner), center stage, unusual twists of fate, effects of excess, and the quest supplanted by the quest to accomplish the quest. And such is life, the best laid plans of mice and men….
The question of faux is spontaneity fall back to the notion of New Journalism, well cross that path another day and for more on Céline https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_on_Credit.
The background of what was going on in Oscar’s life that led to the Vegas is explained.
Vegas was Thompson’s first Gonzo masterpiece. It arose from a trip to Las Vegas in March 1971, which he undertook with his friend, the Chicano activist and lawyer Oscar Zeta Acosta. Thompson had been working on an article for Rolling Stone, “Strange Rumblings in Aztlán”, about the alleged police murder of the Chicano reporter Ruben Salazar. Acosta was an important source for the article, but the lawyer’s bodyguards distrusted Thompson, as they suspected wrongly that he was a police informer. To defuse the situation, the two men took off for Las Vegas after Thompson was handed the assignment of covering the Mint 400 motorcycle race for Sports Illustrated, who only wanted 250 words to caption a photo. Thompson found enough material in the trip for a long fictional piece; he submitted a 2500-word draft to Sports Illustrated, who not surprisingly “aggressively rejected” the manuscript. However, Jann Wenner, Thompson’s editor at Rolling Stone, expressed interest in publishing the finished version. This was all the incentive Thompson needed, and he set to work revising the notes he had taken in Las Vegas. He also used material he had gathered on a second trip to the city in April 1971, on an assignment to report on the District Attorneys’ Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs: this became the second part of the novel.
The article Strange Rumblings in Aztlan by HST is well worth reading.
To understand why Hunter took Oscar to Vegas and to understand them a people there are a few more thing that should be known.
Rubén Salazar was an award winning Mexican-American (I think Chicano is cooler) reporter and columnist for the LA Times who had covered the 1965 United States occupation of the Dominican Republic, the Vietnam War, and the Tlatelolco massacre.
In 1970, Salazar left the times full-time to become the news director for the Spanish TV station KMEX in LA where he was investigating the LAPD planting evidence in the police killing of two Mexican nationals as well as other bad noise. The cops didn’t like that and gave him veiled threats for his journalistic efforts.
On August 29, 1970 LA held the National Chicano Moratorium march and rally against the Vietnam War which was broken up by the police, a tear gas canister struck and killed Salazar, the coroner declared it a homicide but there was never a prosecution.
And here is where things get awful. Oscar was convinced as well as others in the Chicano that the killing of Salazar was an act of assassination. The official police story wasn’t plausible, their witnesses absurd, and their stammering seemed like a cover up. The news coverage also weak with many stories reporting the death of Salazar but not by name. Taken together, the result was a grave mistrust of the police and news media.
Hunter goes into the complexity of the issues in Strange Rumblings in Aztlan and you can read his words for yourself, but Hunter in the end felt the police were too incompetent to murder Salazar…but incompetent enough to kill a bystander, Salazar was at the wrong spot at the wrong time.
The death of Salazar was ruled an accident http://articles.latimes.com/2011/feb/19/local/la-me-ruben-salazar-20110220.
Oscar as a lawyer was also deeply involved in the Chicano political movement as an advocate haven given many a fiery political speech believed that Salazar was murdered and rolled with bodyguards that believed the same. The bodyguards, and other in this circle did not trust the press, including Hunter, ergo Hunter took Oscar to Vegas to chat.
Dr. Gonzo and Raul Duke are different than Hunter and Oscar. Those very real men cared deeply about politics, society, and justice. They both had gone to the mat, done battle with the beasts, and believed that fight for justice is worth it. Oscar get a JD and pass the bar, Hunter a lifelong autodidactic, they both were intelligent, motivated professionals that gave a shit.
Now, to lay a myth to rest…..
It is sometimes assumed that Thompson was as stoned as his protagonists, both in Las Vegas itself and when he revised the novel afterwards. However, he made clear that he had been relatively sober during his visits to the city. Although he fuelled his revisions to the manuscript with a strict regime of “Dexedrine and bourbon”, he admitted that he had exaggerated his own drug use for the novel. Vegas was in fact “a very conscious attempt to simulate drug freak-out”. Thompson revised the manuscript in a highly disciplined way, going through five drafts to ensure no unnecessary words went in.
Hunter was a Wildman, his street cred unassailable and legend, all true. And he was also a literati craftsmen who took New Journalism and forged it into Gonzo Journalism, an act of speciation. He deeply understood the mindset, experiences, and emotional states and terrible circumstances in the story, using them as a methodologically to deliver truths that would otherwise be missed. And understood the mechanics of literature and journalism. That Hunter thought the book failed as pure Gonzo Journalism in the sense that it was not the notes themselves written in the heat of the moment, is a something to ponder.
Deeper so, Stephenson compares Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to the picaresque Don Quixote and On the road, the observer-participant narrator of The Great Gatsby, the weird babble of Waiting for Godot, the adventure quest of Moby Dick and The Last of the Mohicans, the commentary of The Doors of Perception, while deftly beating back the silliness of Leary and Alger. All at the historical moment when the gray faced bastards crushed all hope of Fun in America, as so lovely told in the wave speech. Vegas was an atavistic predatory hell hole, the quest for the American Dream a lame fuck around as was coming peace of the 60’s love and joy.
And Stephenson is right to point out that Gonzo itself became a commodity and lifestyle, attracting people for dumb reasons. And that is our failing as well. There is a difference between playing Raul and Dr. Gonzo for fun, an episode of escapism against the horror show that is modernity, and using them as an alibi for acting like an ass. Hunter and Oscar gave a shit about good people getting stomped. They took it on the chin for social injustice and politics and loved literature and many other things that are not smoked, snorted, or drank. We the fans owe it to all those that made Gonzo a reality not to reduce the work to stoner comedies but instead as a point of initiation into living a fun life of giving a fuck about the people and world around you, a life of bravery and chicanery, prank and protest, and something something something. Now, go have fun storming the castle.
Finally, transparency in the Ruben Salazar case
More from LA times
PBS Documentary on Ruben Salazar
PBS page on the documentary
Twitter for PBS Ruben Salazar Doc