In the last two days I’ve completed reading two novels of distinct interest to me: Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time. Both were phenomenal reads. Both can be related, in their own ways, to the American Dream. But perhaps they should’ve been spaced out a little bit in my reading schedule.
I’d been loaned a copy of Fear and Loathing from a friend a little over a month ago. Thompson had become pretty inspirational to me over the last year as I researched his work. I’d watched Terry Gilliam’s film adaptation but never got around to reading the actual novel. When I was lent it, I had to practice a good deal of restraint from reading it since it was the end of my semester and I had a list full of books to finish for my American literature course.
One of my final books in American lit was an extra credit read of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises which I fired through with awed vigor. Hemingway has become one of my favorite authors since the 2011 fall semester when I read his short story “Soldier’s Home” and did a research paper on the main character Harold Krebs’ motivations. So I was very eager to read his novels as quickly as possible. Or I guess in respect to Hemingway, I should say: I liked “Soldier’s Home.” I liked The Sun Also Rises. I was happy when I read them. Nothing seemed to make me more happy. (That’s a little prose humor for you.)
During the end of the semester, I was mixing my required readings with some pleasure reading of the short stories of In Our Time. I put it down half way through to finish my final book for class, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.
As of last Tuesday, school is over and I was left to do my own reading. And I’ve begun to assemble a nice list of books I want to get through. First up was Fear and Loathing. I breezed through the majority of it yesterday and finished late last night. Once the drug-fueled craziness kicks in full swing, which is pretty much at the beginning of the novel, it’s too much of a page turner to be put down. And like Thompson says, “you can turn your back on a person, but never turn your back on a drug, especially when it’s waving a razor sharp hunting knife in your eye.” In my case, I couldn’t turn my back on a book full of Samoans puking into shoes, waitresses being petitioned for sodomy for a few laughs, and a few premium American automobiles getting more banged up then the drug-bingers driving them.
When Fear and Loathing came to a close I made the odd decision to pick up In Our Time the very next day. As I finished the final stories featuring Nick Adams realizing his maturity in the middle of a two-part finale that goes nowhere but touches on everything, I started to feel a little disoriented. In a matter of hours I went from 1971 Las Vegas, full of its acid induced hallucinations to 1920’s Europe and America as disillusioned Americans do their best to cope with harsh realities.
Both books had stated tough truths about the American dream. That’s the one unifying theme that ties them together for me. In the same way Thompson sought the location of the American dream in Nevada’s deserts, I’ve been searching for it in literature.
Each book spoke to a different generation that found itself asking “what’s the deal?” in its own way. Both books present people transitioning from prosperous and enjoyable decades in American culture to times of confusion and disappointment. Hemingway’s Adams returns home from WWI and fights to come to terms with masculinity, relationships, and values. When the reader leaves Adams, he has isolated himself from people to ease his confusion with the help of nature. For Krebs, protagonist of “Soldier’s Home,” the self-realization is a little bitterer as he’s forced to adapt to societal norms he no longer cares for to avoid confrontation.
Thompson tells his own tale as a living, breathing survivor of the hippie counterculture of the 1960’s who was left stumbling into the 70’s, hungover and blurry eyed from a decade of heavy recreational drug use only to find that their rebellion was fruitless. Politics got weirder and times weren’t changing for the better. This sense of disappointment in these people’s fates was summarized beautifully by Thompson in arguably his best passage from the novel:
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.
After reading both of these works I’m left fumbling around in my bedroom on a particularly humid and rainy night at 2:00 a.m. I am as confused and disoriented as the world and war weary WWI veterans of In Our Time and the self-destructive drug abusers of Fear and Loathing. Gertrude Stein called Hemingway’s folk “the Lost Generation.” Hunter S. Thompson didn’t seem to have the right map either in the 70’s. Over forty years later and I couldn’t tell you where I should be going. America has been at war for over a decade and I can’t find a decent song on the radio. If Hemingway’s time was the “Lost Generation” then I want to know who was ever found. All I can think to do is put on an Acapulco shirt, rent a convertible only to drive it to the ground and abandon it at the edge of the woods before submerging myself deep into isolation and nature for some trout fishing and a little bit of nothingness.