Strange memories
The death of author Hunter Thompson by his own hand closes out the career of a man who produced the most memorable portrait of Nevada’s metropolis.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was published at a time when most books on the southern city were either boosterish histories, tourist guides or mildly disdainful memoirs by outsiders. Thompson’s book was so original, bizarre and perceptive that the city’s parochial leaders didn’t know what to make of it—or how to use it, always the first thought in a Las Vegas booster’s mind whenever the city came to the attention of the nation.

One of the book’s sentences was so dazzling in its insight and wit that it has become probably the most quoted observation about Nevada casinos: “The Circus Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war.”

Fear and Loathing, basically a memoir of Thompson’s drug-soaked trip (accompanied by his attorney) to a Las Vegas law enforcement conference, has been the subject of masters’ theses, a movie starring Johnny Depp, a Doonesbury cartoon character and incessant analysis. (In a movie about Thompson, Where the Buffalo Roam, he was portrayed by Bill Murray.)

In 2000, for example, the marketing trade journal Consumption, Markets, and Culture published an article by Utah business professor Russell Belk on “consumer infantalization” in Las Vegas that turned to Thompson’s book for support: “This is not a good town for psychedelic drugs. Reality itself is too twisted.”

Thompson was compared to everyone from Mark Twain to Norman Mailer, but his writing was so novel that comparisons were beside the point. And his name is so inextricably linked to that of Las Vegas that a Google search of the two names together gets 71,900 hits.

The book’s reputation has, if anything, grown with the passage of years, as Las Vegas has become even more Las Vegas.

Will Self, a writer for Britain’s New Statesman, wrote in 1997: “For years it was embarrassing to admit what an influence this slim text had on me. I must have been around 16. I loved the book so much I bought a T-shirt with Ralph Steadman’s astonishing cover-drawing on it. … Even at that age I think I did perceive some of the very serious themes that run behind the acidic, surreal, slapstick routines which make up Thompson’s excoriating attack on the reality of the American Dream on the far cusp of the sixties. And as I come back to the text now—and listening to an hilarious new CD adaptation of it starring Harry Dean Stanton and Jim Jarmusch—it has acquired still more resonance.”

Before Fear and Loathing, Thompson was known principally for his book Hell’s Angels, a chronicle of his year riding with the biker gang that achieved the stature of becoming a Modern Library reprint.

After the Las Vegas book was published in 1971, Thompson, working for Rolling Stone, covered the 1972 presidential campaign, where he earned the comparisons to Twain by writing that candidate Edmund Muskie was taking a drug called ibogaine, thus accounting for Muskie’s conduct on the campaign trail. The claim took on a certain currency, though Thompson admitted after the campaign that it was a hoax. But his coverage of the campaign (later published in book form) was as impressive in its insights as the Las Vegas book had been. A news photo of reporters on the campaign press bus that year showed one reporter, Ham Davis, reading a copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...