Courtesy of The Criterion Collection

March 19, 2024

‘Fear and Loathing’ in Ithaca: Sober and (Less) Sober Reflections on Gonzo Journalism and Turning 21

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I picked up a copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on Friday, 12 hours away from an essay deadline I desperately wanted to avoid and thinking about the book’s long-standing place on my must-read list because of the Criterion Collection’s announcement of the 4k release of the — allegedly — inferior adaptation. I convinced myself, in a further effort to stave off the inevitable essay writing and editing, that it’d help me as a journalist and an editor. I still cringe at my attribution as a journalist — put a gun to my head and maybe I’d invoke Marat as a hero — but I must admit it fits the job description. I now spend enough of my time laying out pages, emailing potential interviews or sources, and copy editing for Oxford commas to make the position undeniable. It’ll help with my journalism, I told myself; I’ve accidentally found myself as a student journalist, and I now need help with my journalism. 

On Sunday I turned 21: that last fun birthday before they begin to blur together and race unfortunately and unexpectedly to the grisly end. I thought I noticed myself balding the week before, but convinced myself it was a torn-out hair from stress over some unsent text message or unread email. I skipped the St. Patrick’s Day festivities on Saturday, telling myself that it wouldn’t feel special to drink legally for the first time if I’d done it the day before — silly since I’d already drank legally all last semester and perhaps less legally on other unspecified occasions. Instead, I migrated around campus, reading Fear and Loathing and auto-critiquing myself for my ironic relative sobriety; in the evening I watched the film, which was in fact inferior. 

I read in some or other Letterboxd review for Godard’s Tout Va Bien that perhaps that revolutionary spirit of the 1960s felt farther away in 1972 (or 1971 for Thompson) than it does in 2024. With my limited historical and literary understanding, I know immediately that it’s true; I’ve had enough hangovers spent telling myself that I’d never drink again; the revolution is distant, but not as impossible as all that. And (at the risk of cribbing the genre of inopportune artistic comparison from another Sun contributor) I’m hungover myself. In the positive sense of the word, I felt older a year ago than I do now, even if I can’t fully convince myself that my hair hasn’t already begun receding — oh God I sound like Holden Caulfield. The whiplash of receding possibilities — the broken wave — can’t help but make itself visible… one doesn’t even need ascend atop the peaks of Vegas or Ithaca. 

There’s something incredibly brain-scratchy about Thompson’s prose. It’s what gives the book its reputation for activating the serotonin receptors of New Yorker-curious teens unwilling to do the drugs themselves, but it’s also simply true. There’s this exciting flitting between chronology and stream of consciousness, unreality and reflection, fear and loathing and euphoria. Whether there’s something more to the novel — some deeper meaning in that wave digression beyond the overwhelming hangover — remains slightly uncertain to me. Thompson allows me to be excited about his genre, feeling less icky than Capote with his surgical intrusion into a mourning community and less obnoxiously reactionary as Wolfe or even Didion. I can’t help but be attracted to the idea of a New Journalism: Having grown up after the recovery, there’s perhaps a fetishism in my obsession with the artifacts of our last national (failed) revolutionary moment. 

I wonder if Hunter S. Thompson was the one who gave us all the idea that you’re more creative the less sober you are. Perhaps its true with LSD, but if you’re adhering to the law on your 21st birthday, nothing’s really gonna help you write. But I can’t help but find it beautiful — a vestigial thought from my still infant aged mind — that premise of documentation. Document everything: the good, the bad, the exciting and boring. And don’t edit, Fear and Loathing was never supposed to be edited; Thompson ended up revising it and called it a failed experiment for that reason (according to Wikipedia at least). In a way that rings more true: some proclaimed pursuit of “true” authenticity without ever really having much interest in its implications.   

So did the procrastination tactic “help with my journalism”? I don’t really know, did Thompson actually find the American Dream? It’s all a fun exercise, getting oneself more excited about the prospect of the job and more dubious about its value, even if it amounts to little more. I’ll be more careful to refrain from cutting the possible musings of a madman next time I edit. Or perhaps I’ll find myself growing more and more cynical about the whole endeavor. For now, I’ve picked up a copy of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which suggests subconscious plans either to pitch some very interesting opinion investigations or to do something else entirely. Only time will tell. 

Max Fattal is a junior in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. They can be reached at [email protected]