Vegas is still humping the American Dream — Remembering Hunter S. Thompson

New York New York in Las VegasNew York New York in Las Vegas / Photo by Werner Kunz

February 24, 2012 — Truth be told, Hunter S. Thompson’s hard-charging, take-no-prisoners lifestyle made him the unlikeliest of role models, though to a younger generation of writers, that’s exactly what he represented. I remember being blown away when I read Hell’s Angels for the first time in high school. That was how you DO journalism — you experience it and then you write about it. I wanted to write like that. Except, could we skip the part where the motorcycle gang stomps the shit out of you? It has been seven years since Thompson’s suicide — seven years this week to be exact. Seven years ago, I was in Orlando “doing” journalism, but on the side, I had a gig writing a poker column for Orlando City Beat under the pen name “Joe Carswald.” This is the column I wrote a few days after Thompson’s death.

“Who are these people? These faces! They look like caricatures of used-car dealers from Dallas. But they’re real. And, sweet Jesus, there are a hell of a lot of them — still screaming around these desert-city crap tables at four-thirty on a Sunday morning. Still humping the American Dream, that vision of the Big Winner somehow emerging from the last-minute pre-dawn chaos of a stale Vegas casino.”

— Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1971

Vegas is decadent and depraved. That much we knew.

But it was Hunter S. Thompson who made us feel that this was good. That this was the only way to tackle this desert oasis — at hyperspeed, our brains lubed with a never-ending river of free drinks and whatever kind of pharmaceuticals we could hide in our socks.

Thanks to him, legions of Hawaiian-shirt-wearing freaks make their way to Vegas every day, pushing the stakes higher, faster and wilder than they ever would back home. They want to be Hunter S. Thompson (or at least the Johnny Depp version of the good doctor) if only for one paranoid weekend. It’s less pilgrimage than quest; as if they’re searching for the same man-eating lizards that an acid-gobbling Thompson encountered at the Mint Hotel.

Thompson’s visit to Las Vegas (he was there as a reporter covering a motorcycle race) stands as the gold standard for all Sin City road trips. Hell, for all road trips, period.

A few years ago, my friend celebrated his birthday in Vegas, rereading “Fear and Loathing” on the flight out. He broke out of the gate strong, but Vegas isn’t a city for sprinters.

After four mind-numbing days of boozing, smoking and gambling, with only a few hours of sleep, he returned to Florida shell shocked. His recovery was painful — a mental hangover made worse by a hacking cough that took weeks to shake. My friend, a pack-a-day smoker before the trip, hasn’t had a cigarette since. He has, however, returned to Vegas, a little wiser — his copy of “Fear and Loathing” stowed safely on a bookshelf back home.

In an interview almost 30 years after “Fear and Loathing” was published, Thompson remarked that his trip to Vegas had been “a moment of epiphany but I can’t remember what it was.”

His original intention was to write a book about the death of the American dream. Instead, he took a psychedelic detour. What he ended up writing was less an essay on the death of the dream but a discovery that the dream is alive and well, if not permanently warped. It was neither novel nor documentary but, like most of his writing, something in between.

“Only a goddamn lunatic would write a thing like this and then claim it was true,” Thompson said.

For Thompson, it was always about being more accurate than factual.

Thompson, 67, put a .45 caliber handgun in his mouth Sunday and ended his life. It wasn’t hard to predict that’s how he would go out. He was, after all, a decades-long habitual drug abuser, fascinated with guns and violence and deeply paranoid of everything and everyone.

He was a hopped up, pill-popping Hemmingway, without the sexual repression.

Like Papa, Thompson was a passionate sportsman. He was also an unrepentant gambler. His columns for ESPN.com were often about gambling, mostly about his passion for betting on football and basketball.

“Gambling on football has never been really Good for you; but on some days, it can be serious Fun,” he wrote in one column.

I don’t know if he played poker. He may have sat down at his share of card tables, a bottle of good tequila at his elbow, a loaded sidearm tucked in his waistband. But it’s just as likely he didn’t have the patience for poker, a game that, if played well, requires large amounts of concentration and focus.

Nevertheless, James McManus, author of the best-selling “Positively Fifth Street,” an account of his experiences in the 2002 World Series of Poker, found inspiration in Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing.” McManus stayed at the Mint Hotel, just two floors above the room Thompson stayed in during his 1971 acid trip.

McManus wrote: “Instead of the trunkload of psychedelics, booze and pharmaceuticals Thompson deployed as both subject and fuel for his piece, I’ll be sticking to vitamins and mineral water, Zocor and laps in the pool … Whatever the opposite of gonzo is, that will be me.”

We want to be Hunter S. Thompson, just like we want to climb Mount Everest. Which is to say it’s nice to think so, but we’re mortally afraid of the consequences. So we pretend and we imitate but we know we’ll never soak our heads in ether, or pop as much mescal and amphetamines, or capture the decadence and depravity of America with the same magnificent, exaggerated flourishes.

Flickr image of New York, New York in Vegas by how to describe yourself online dating examples. Flickr image of roulette table by is a research paper a type of essay.  Both images are used here under a Creative Commons license.

Joe Newman

I'm Joe Newman, multi-media story teller, non-profit do-gooder, international street photographer, serious poker player, intrepid traveler. Bourbon drinker.

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