Vegas in the Gonzo Mirror

Hunter S. Thompson would have turned 75 this month. Reflections on how he looked at our city and found himself.

July 18 would have been Hunter S. Thompson’s 75th birthday. His name is linked with Las Vegas; more specifically, with fear and loathing in it.

The story of his pathbreaking book is about as straightforward as you would expect. Thompson drove up to Las Vegas in March 1970 to cover the Mint 400 off-road race for Sports Illustrated. In place of captions for a photo spread, he delivered a rambling semi-fictional account that ultimately grew into the novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. The book is a hallmark of gonzo journalism—the gleeful abandonment of objectivity for a disturbingly personal stream-of-consciousness narrative, peppered with tales of recreational drug use and abuse and politico-cultural pronouncements.

It was an approach that inherently called for excess; where better to develop it than the growing capital of American excess, Las Vegas? The city had been through its first growth spurts, patching together the Las Vegas Strip along Highway 91 and then sending its towers vertical. This wasn’t the cozy haunt of prospectors and dam workers of the 1930s, or even the place where Joey Bishop would walk you to your table in the Copa Lounge. Las Vegas was at last a city big enough to get lost in, and therefore a city big enough to try to find oneself in.

Thompson’s most enduring literary legacy for Las Vegas is that he made the town a touchstone for America. He wasn’t the first outsider to write about Las Vegas by any stretch of the imagination. It had been common practice for newspapers, radio programs and television stations to periodically send correspondents to report on the goings-on in Nevada for years. These were usually standard-issue PR fluff, long on the wonders to be found and short on real stories. Still, the city had already attracted some New Journalism attention; Tom Wolfe had written an essay about the city titled “Las Vegas (What?) Las Vegas (Can’t hear you! Too noisy) Las Vegas!!!” for Esquire in 1965.

But Thompson was the first to consider Las Vegas a symbol of the country itself. He presented not a travelogue or even an ethnography, but a dark mirror held up to the reader.

Since then, using Las Vegas as a proxy for the depths of the American soul has become second nature, even for journalists of a decidedly non-gonzo bent. On one hand, the city is unique; on the other hand, it’s a symbol for everything that’s wrong with America (never, unfortunately, anything that’s right). So the busted real estate market and the foreclosure crisis aren’t just local financial meltdowns; it’s synecdoche for a host of national economic and cultural woes. Apparently, it’s easy to parachute into Las Vegas, spend a few days (or even hours) walking around and reach deep and important conclusions about the current state of America.

Partially, that’s by design. The city’s image-makers have never deigned to flaunt a full-frontal portrait; instead, they tease and imply. In the 1950s, this meant boosterism that simultaneously promoted cheap gambling getaways and a city with more churches than casinos. Today, it means that what happens here, stays here—but you decide what happens here.

In other words, we don’t try too hard to explain Las Vegas to visitors; the truth is complicated, so why not simply smile—or better yet, wink—and let the visitor’s imagination do the rest? It’s a trick that’s worked, more or less, for the last half-century. Those looking to find debauchery find debauchery. Business travelers looking to do business do business, whether it’s at convention network breaks or over expensed steak dinners. Bachelors and bachelorettes have one last wild fling. And, in a story that’s being told more often, hard-working men and women from all over the U.S. and the world find jobs that let them dream of a better life for their children; it might be a non-savage journey that’s more grind than gonzo, but it’s another face of Las Vegas.

It’s easy to get caught up in the idea of Vegas exceptionalism, the notion that this is a city fundamentally different from any other. Whether it stands as a symbol of the unfolding globalist post-industrial America or a litmus test for greed and excess, Vegas, even the most grounded of us think, must stand for something. It is simply too fantastic a city just to be.

The result is a city that’s more opaque and less understood than ever before.

But that’s not such a bad thing. There’s a certain honor in being the city-as-muse, the inspiration seen only indirectly in the final art, be it visual or literary.

Forty-two years ago, Hunter S. Thompson found something in Las Vegas that no other writer could have found: Hunter S. Thompson, in his purest form. It’s a discovery that other would-be chroniclers of America have been seeking since, and will continue to chase.