Having seen Terry Gilliam’s brilliant screen adaptation before I ever even knew there was a book, it was entirely impossible for me to read Hunter S. Thompson’s drug culture tome without always qualifying it or framing it within the context of del Toro, Depp, and the manic visuals of the film.
Substantially about post-60s drug culture (and culture in general, I suppose) and the turning point of American decline with the Nixon administration (the politics in this case are peripheral, but Thompson was an avowed GOP-hater). The two main characters, Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo (representing the author and his attorney, and yet, not), are constantly blitzed out of their skulls on all sorts of drugs. As the famous lines go:
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. […]
We had 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… and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.
The drug use in the novel is sad, almost tragicomic, but the excess to which Raoul and Gonzo indulge themselves makes for a horrifying narrative. Some of the novel is completely incoherent. Much of it is quite confusing. I understand that such a device has a purpose (our narrator is technically stoned out of his mind), but it has a tendency to come off like Lucky’s stream-of-consciousness monologue in Waiting for Godot. Readers are treated with a frantic, naïve search for the American Dream; the unstated irony is manifested physical in the form of a conversation our antiheroes have with a waitress and a cook in a greasy spoon outside of Las Vegas. In other words, there’s a complex symbology underneath the surface. Complex, but not difficult.
I hate knowing that I’m writing from a biased perspective, but it is truly impossible for me to recommend the book without the benefit of the movie. Such a story lends itself so well to the cinematic medium that the original book pales in comparison. Kind of like Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was a hum-drum book and a sensational film.
I should also note that Abou has a much better review of the same book.