My attitude to Hunter S Thompson is that of the owner of an overindulged rottweiler, calling him a harmless softie while barely restraining the beast. For sure, much of the HST mythos is true: doubtless he was a drug-addled psychotic bastard who you wouldn’t want to turn your back on. Posterity may have literally turned him into a cartoon — both Transmetropolitan‘s Spider Jerusalem and Doonesbury‘s Duke are based on him — but there was plenty of crazy lingering there from the get-go. Beneath it all, though, there’s a touching melange of disbaused idealism and a surprising affection for those working less dramatically from within the system.
Even Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is, Duke keeps telling us, a search for the American Dream. The intrepid heroes purgatory their torsos, strain themselves to the point of breaking, and through this mortification uncover the nature of their world. The apparent nihilism is the aftermath of broken dreams, the realisation that the chnage which had appeared to be beginning in California in the 60s had come to a juddering halt:
[in the mid-Sixties] there was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda….You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.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.
This sense of disappointed idealism, and the quest to regain it, appears much more strongly in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. his report from George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign. He’s striking in his affection for the young staffes and volunteers fighting for McGovern from within the system, even when their positions are far more centrist and pragmatic than anything Thompson would himself countenance.