Hunter S Thompson fears and loathes the government, the establishment, our material culture, and all of our society’s contradictions. Yet he goes to Las Vegas to try to find the American dream which is the encapsulation of all of these things that he fears and loathes. Because he fears and loathes these aspects of society, he arms and protects himself with drugs. The drugs make it easier to deal with the pain because they anesthetize his experience. Of course, there are certain side effects. I tend to view all serious drug and alcohol use as a kind of escapism from reality. But since reality is so dark and unforgiving, it makes me wonder who is really crazy? The regular people that just shuffle through their 8 to 6 jobs they hate just so they could buy things they don’t need or the other people that just escape. In case anybody’s interested, I’m not really either. I see both drugs/booze/antidepressants and unfulfilling jobs for money as indulgences. I’d rather do something I like for less money so that I could like myself.
Thompson’s writing style is a stream of consciousness in which the consciousness is heavily medicated. As a result, the reader is presented with an unreliable first-person narrator who is often hallucinating, mocking, or outright lying. What is particularly effective about his style is that the narrator comes off as a friend, someone on an extended diatribe. As a result, the novel is very easy to read but not necessarily easy to comprehend. For example, “The decision to flee came suddenly. Or maybe not. Maybe I’d planned it all along –subconsciously waiting for the right moment. The bill was a factor, I think. Because I had no money to pay it. And no more of these devilish credit-card/reimbursement deals.” The language is precise and unforgiving, self-assured but also contradictory. But above all, it’s playful.
Thompson seems to view the 60s with a kind of nostalgia. The nostalgia is not the kind expressed by contemporary Super Bowl ads appealing to the baby boomer generation but rather one that is representative of the kind of longing for a complex time. In chapter 8, he talks about history but history is difficult to analyze and study if you are the person who experienced it. In other words, the first-hand experience of really living through the 60s is as he said, “hard to know.” His words also hint at a kind of pride for his generation, one that stood up and came to a head “in a long fine flash for reasons that nobody really understands.”
The American dream is based on extremes. I watched a program with Barbara Walters about billionaires, what they did, and what they have. The program said that in 1985 America had 15 billionaires. Today in 2011 America has over 400. What this tells me is that our culture is fascinated with exceptionalism: people with the most money, people with the most intelligence, people who overcome the most extreme obstacles, etc. As a country, we like flashy objects. We are impressed with impressive things but we are not impressed with an overall standard of high quality. As a result, our culture is captivated by rags to riches stories, like a homeless man competing on American Idol or a single father founding a highly successful company (Paul Mitchell hair products) on his last $300. On the other hand, what we are much less interested in is in more boring stories: increasing the number of people who graduate from college, increasing the number of people who are given appropriate healthcare and charged appropriate prices, etc. I am not even talking about the political or economic forces that are involved in these decisions. The thing that concerns me is that these aspects of modern life and everyday existence don’t make a splash and therefore they are not interesting and they don’t make the news. We don’t care about a middle-class person who makes $40,000 buying a used Dodge neon for $3000 and owing it free and clear. Instead we expect people who make $40,000 to drive and make payments on brand-new $30,000 cars. We’re not ashamed of debt but are instead impressed with products and credit lines. This includes everyone from the Wall Street bankers and the MTV cribs celebrities to the zero down/adjustable mortgage first home buyers. In today’s political climate, it is easy to point the finger at the greed on Wall Street that we are all greedy every time we want something for nothing, every time we think we deserve something just because and don’t care whether we can really afford it. Our society has a skewed perception of what’s important. But nothing can change until the definition of the American dream changes and that seems highly unlikely. Because if the definition of American dream weren’t based on risk against great odds, what would be the point of this country? Why would anyone come here?