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Fear and Loathing At 50: What Does It Mean To Las Vegas?

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Ralph Steadman/Random House/Amazon

Fifty years ago, Hunter S. Thompson wrote "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," the most famous book ever set in Vegas. 

Its legacy can be seen in many ways. Journalists tried to copy Thompson’s gonzo journalism style for much of the ‘70s. Johnny Depp famously starred in the movie version in 1998. And don’t forget the scores of men who dress as main character Raoul Duke every Halloween.  

But how has it aged? Even as it remains at the top of the Vegas literary canon, there are lingering issues about its portrayal of Vegas, its dated version of journalism and how its characters are portrayed.

John L. Smith, a longtime Las Vegas journalist and a regular contributor to State of Nevada, was 12 and living in Las Vegas when the book was released.

He said when Thompson and his attorney drove their convertible into the city, they arrived to a new Las Vegas.

"This is the new Las Vegas of that age," Smith said, "We re-invent ourselves so much that you have to remember that it wasn't always mega-resorts."

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Some of the icons of the Strip were already established including Circus Circus and Caesars Palace, Smith said. Along with that, downtown had bustling gaming on Fremont Street. 

But the book isn't a travel log of Las Vegas 1971, it is really a look at American at large.

"It was also an era of Nixonian politics in Washington and there was a drug culture here in Las Vegas," Smith said, "We were then, as now, a real crossroads for humanity."

Smith said, at the time, Las Vegas was trying to re-invent itself after a lot of the music culture of the time had moved past the city. 

"We were kind of in that vortex of change and I think Thompson was the kind of an agent of change in his own right," he said.

Smith said there was a lot of controversy when the book came out.

"The official reaction to the book was just outrage that Las Vegas was withered and staggered by the criticism," he said, "In reality, he probably did Las Vegas a favor, marketing it as a place that was interesting enough to do drugs in." 

He said, to this day, some older Las Vegans still bristle at the way the city was portrayed.

"Some of them are still appalled by it, why? I don't really know," Smith said, "This is clearly a guy trying out some new journalism chops and mixing in a lot of drug use and a lot of fantasy in that book as well."

Smith believes if the city's promoters could find a current writer like Thompson to bring here and let him or her do a send-up of the city, people would read it. 

"That gonzo feel of the place is almost a naturally occurring experience," he said, "It is a bit surreal on the Strip any given night." 

While the book has many fans, Las Vegas-based writer Veronica Klash is not among them. She recently wrote an essay about the book where she explains the many reasons she does not like it. 

"The style itself, while groundbreaking at the time and I can understand the merits of gonzo journalism, is very difficult to get through as a reader," she said, "So, just stylistically, I found that to be an issue."

Beyond that, as a former worker in the hospitality industry, Klash found his treatment of wait staff, housekeeping and desk clerks difficult to read.

"The content was so abrasive to get through," she said, "Reading scene after scene of this man being cruel and just violent in many different ways towards hospitality workers was very difficult to get through as a reader." 

She believes the lingering legacy of the book is something Las Vegas locals contend with on a regular basis. 

"It is lodged into the collective consciousness of this country," she said, "So a lot of media that came after it was trying to replicate that and build off of this established idea of what this city is."

Klash said the cliched descriptions of the city by journalists who have popped into the city for a weekend make "her blood boil" because it is the only version of the city that people outside of Southern Nevada get without any nuance. 

Poet, writer and local attorney Dayvid Figler also wrote an essay about "Fear and Loathing," but he has a much different take.

"As a timepiece, as something that was written in 1971 about burgeoning Las Vegas in 1971, I think it did capture a lot of the city from the perspective of a mean-spirited, highly literate visitor who lands here, not by coincidence, at a crossroads in American history," he said.

Figler believes ultimately Thompson is pontificating on whether Las Vegas is what American, under President Richard Nixon and his cronies, has become. In addition, he believes Thompson's answer to his own question is a disdainful 'yes.' 

However, Thompson is also describing a place that Las Vegas itself serves up "on a silver platter of obvious" to tourists, Figler said.

"It is as a snapshot, as a place, probably better than most to understand the human condition and the melting pot of America," Figler said, "He was spot on. He just landed at the right place, at the right time, and he wrote an entertaining, although problematic, novel/non-fiction piece about it." 

Figler also noted at the time Thompson rolled into town to cover the Mint 400 there were about 250,000 people in Las Vegas and about 7 million tourists visited here every year.

Now, 2.2 million people live in Clark County, and now, about 42 million visitors travel here each year.

"There has always been and continues to be two Las Vegas's," he said, "I think Hunter Thompson did as admirable and certainly notoriously long-lasting version of it that any tourist could be expected to be done."

Guests

Veronica Klash, writer; John L. Smith, contributor, State of Nevada; Dayvid Figler, writer and poet 

 

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