In 1984, I was a first-year student at John Abbott College in suburban Montreal. In my last year of high school, I had heard about a John Abbott English teacher named Rod Smith, who taught a course titled “The Vision and the Apocalypse,” which focused on books and films that came out of, or dealt with, the revolutions of the 1960s: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, A Clockwork Orange, and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Smith had a reputation as a demented genius. I could fill the rest of this post with the stories – some true, some probably somewhat true, some total bullshit – that circulated about Smith: the time he gave students the option of spending a day tied to a tree in lieu of writing a final paper (this one’s true); the time he lectured wearing a diving bell because he said there was too much atmospheric pressure; the time he threw a dummy grenade into a classroom and lay down on it.
Smith’s attempt to get the students of the mid-1980s to engage with the memory of the 1960s reflected its cultural moment. The Boomers were hitting middle age, and their youth was being analyzed and re-packaged by and for them. The recent Hollywood smash The Big Chill chronicled the Boomers’ attempt to understand what had happened to their youthful values; a few years later, John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful enjoyed a career revival hawking Time-Life’s CD box sets of 1960s hits in late-night infomercials.
Part of that process involved a deliberate softening of a horrific time in American history. The 1960s were fundamentally tragic and painful, and while the assassinations, the riots, the war, and the bombings could never be made to disappear, in the memories manufactured by and for the Boomers, they took a back seat to idyllic images of hippies dancing in the rain at Woodstock or peacefully putting flowers in the barrels of soldiers’ rifles. Smith wanted to get us past that by framing the 1960s not an “Age of Aquarius,” but as a dark time defined by violence, psychological crisis, and the beginning of the end of broadly democratic politics in America.
Many of Smith’s students, myself included, were not ready for that. When we read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, we read it like a novelization of a Cheech and Chong movie. Our focus was on the “two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers…”, the bats in the desert, and the events in the chapter titled “A Terrible Experience with Extremely Dangerous Drugs.” This stuff was shocking, funny, and to a kid like me who had only recently smoked his first joint, transgressive. And not at all what Smith was interested in.
As I recall, we had to write a quick reaction essay at the start of each class, based on a prompt Smith would provide to help us focus our thoughts on a particular aspect of the book or film we were about to discuss. The week we read Thompson, the discussion question took the last line of the book (“I felt like a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger: A man on the move, and just sick enough to be totally confident.”) and asked us to think about what the book said about American identity. Of course, Horatio Alger was nowhere near as interesting as the effects of pineal gland extract on a 300-pound Samoan attorney, so none of us knew what the hell to say. One of the most important parts of the book, and it never dawned on any of us to pick up an encyclopedia and look up Alger; without knowing what Alger represents, critical parts of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas just disappear.
Timothy Denevi’s recent biography of Thompson, Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson’s Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism, focuses on Thompson’s most politically-vital years, beginning with the assassination of John F. Kennedy and ending with the resignation of Richard Nixon. In the wake of Kennedy’s murder, Thompson saw the transfer of executive power by the means of violence as a something that could bring about a future he described as a “shitrain,” “a deluge of human barbarity that would swirl and descend and dirty itself in endless succession.” Specifically, he feared a revival of Richard Nixon’s political career. In that context, Thompson became an explicitly political writer who sought to reveal the ways in which powerful men were taking advantage of instability to increase their grip on power, even as revolutionary movements made important gains against the establishment.
Denevi emphasizes the inherently political nature of the most vital years of Thompson’s career – years when he wrote Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72 – by situating Thompson at pivotal moments of the decade. Attending the 1964 Republican National Convention, where the New Right that has dominated American politics for the last half-century became a viable political force, Thompson understood that he was witnessing a profound shift in American political culture, one in which any commitment to shared political values was being eroded. Barry Goldwater, Thompson believed, had the “ability to convince people who knew he was lying that they should trust him anyway.” Thompson’s understanding that American politics was eschewing any commitment to core values was only strengthened by the nation’s growing immersion in the tragedy of Vietnam. In a letter to Lyndon Johnson, Thompson noted that the war didn’t only risk tearing the nation apart, it would empower lying politicians to silence dissent in the name of patriots. Soon after, at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the Battle of Michigan Avenue showed America that exercising the right to dissent would be met with bloody violence. Thompson was, along with hundreds of other people, tear-gassed and beaten by the police outside the DNC. As Denevi writes, Chicago marked a moment when it became legitimate to ask if America could “continue to exist in the manner it was once conceived of if its mechanisms could be appropriated so easily in the name of everything the republic was meant to stand against.”
As Thompson witnessed the gradual corruption of American politics in the 1960s, he was also closely involved with movements that challenged the status quo. While the Hell’s Angels will never be confused with a progressive political movement, Thompson’s portrait of the gang made clear that he wanted to bring the voice of marginalized people to the fore. It was through his association with the Angels that Thompson made contact with the Merry Pranksters, Ken Kesey’s LSD-fuelled collective that was a vital link between the Beats and the revolutions of the 1960s. Thompson’s first experience with LSD was at an infamous party that brought the Angels and the Pranksters together, putting the author at the crossroads of two key elements of an emerging counterculture. A few months after that party, Thompson was present at the International Days of Protest at UC Berkley, an event that “marked a change in the anti-war movement from more dormant, intellectual based activism towards direct action protests where students took a physical stance against American policy in Vietnam.” Thompson’s association with Chicano lawyer/activist Oscar Acosta inspired his run for sheriff of Aspen County on the “Freak Power” ticket, which aimed to mobilize localized grass-roots power against corporate development agendas. It was while Thompson was reporting on the LAPD’s killing of Chicano activist Ruben Salazar at an anti-war demonstration that he and Acosta took one of the trips to Vegas that provided the inspiration for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Garry Trudeau’s portrayal of Thompson in the character of Uncle Duke skips over this history and is rooted instead in Thompson’s incarnation as a mainstay on the college lecture circuit, when his addiction to alcohol and cocaine began to overtake his ability to sustain his commitment to producing revolutionary journalism. None of Thompson’s political engagement is evident in Duke, and Thompson’s loathing of Trudeau and the caricature that he created is well-documented.
The gap between Thompson’s journalistic acumen and Duke’s contemptible greed is perhaps most evident in Trudeau’s eulogy for Thompson, written soon after Thompson’s 2005 suicide. At the time, Duke is a provincial governor in American-occupied Iraq. He’s feeling poorly, trapped in a nightmarish flashback; the third panel, rendered in the style of longtime Thompson illustrator/accomplice Ralph Steadman, evokes the opening of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, with Raoul Duke/Thompson and Honey, in the place of Acosta/Dr. Gonzo, in a desert landscape. Duke only understands what’s wrong when he reads the headlines and learns of Thompson’s death. As Duke tries to explain to Honey why this matters – “[Thompson] was my inspiration! In a way, I owe him everything!” – he falls deeper into the kind of hallucinatory, drug-fuelled madness that had are regular feature of Duke’s appearances: lizard people, crazy perspective, random disappearances.
Honey’s reaction to Duke’s despair at Thompson’s suicide underlines the extent to which the “real” Thompson is absent in Duke’s character. Reflecting her decades-long blindness to Duke’s fundamental repulsiveness, she argues that unlike Duke, Thompson was “really immature” and a political failure: while Thompson was “a failed candidate for sheriff of Aspen,” Duke is “the mayor of all Al Amok.” Trudeau ends the arc by reminding us that how abhorrent a character Duke is: when Honey, his companion of over 30 years, asks him what her real name is, he replies “Who cares? It’s unpronounceable.”
What’s frustrating about Trudeau’s depiction of Thompson is that it happens in a strip in which journalism has been a central theme since its earliest days. Three regular characters – Mark Slackmeyer, Roland Hedley Jr. and Rick Redfern – are journalists of varying ideologies and levels of competence, and notable figures in the world of journalism, including David Halberstam, Rupert Murdoch, and Dan Rather have appeared in the strip. Given Trudeau’s critical enthusiasm for journalism and journalists, the idea of a different Duke, one who, like Thompson, had a passion for fast living that was directly tied to his sharp political mind and his skills as a wordsmith, might have provided Trudeau with a great voice through which to detail his own acts of investigative cartooning.
So what did Trudeau gain by not giving his readers a version of Duke that more accurately reflected the journalistic legacy of Hunter S. Thompson? The answer, I think, dwells in what Rod Smith tried to teach me in a classroom in suburban Montreal 35 years ago.
The 1960s were a horrible time in America. Every advance made in struggles against racism, sexism, and militarism, every gain against sexual repression and a culture of conformity came at the expense of state violence at a scale unseen since the Civil War and unfolded against a bloody colonial war that killed somewhere between 1.5 and 4 million Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians. The wounds caused by the 1960s revolution have not healed. The backlash to the challenges that were launched against the status quo is evident in the present-day mass incarceration of African-Americans because of racist drug laws, renewed attempts to curtail women’s bodily autonomy, a culture in which dissent against military escapades is framed as inherently unpatriotic, and the mainstreaming of neo-fascist ideas and rhetoric in American political culture.
Thompson understood that the revolution ultimately failed. His single most important piece of writing, the “Wave Speech” in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, captures his sense of disillusion at how the hippies were unable to turn their vision into concrete political reality:
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
The most poignant moment in Denevi’s book is his description of Thompson’s 1964 visit to the Ketchum, Idaho house where Ernest Hemingway had killed himself three years earlier. Thompson understood that Hemingway had killed himself because “after years of hard living … the lens through which he’d so famously articulated the major events of the century had grown too outdated and simplistic for the complex moral realities” of a new era. Duke is the Hunter Thompson who had experienced the hope of the revolution, had lived the rest of his life in profound disappointment at its failure and, like Hemingway, ultimately lost the ability of engage with his times in the way he used to.
There’s a line from “Play it All Night Long,”a Warren Zevon song about life in poor-white rural America: “Brother Billy’s got both guns drawn; he ain’t been right since Vietnam.” America hasn’t been right since Vietnam, and the political ethos that has emerged from that experience is embodied in Uncle Duke’s repulsive core: excess, racism, greed, self-interest, and a ground ethos of amorality. Duke is a cautionary tale, the husk of a man who gave everything he could to an ultimately doomed cause.