Books

Book club: No loathing, but lots of laughter, for Hunter S. Thompson classic

Ralph Steadman’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Raoul Duke” illustrates Hunter S. Thompson’s drug-filled odyssey with lawyer Oscar Zeta Acosta. It’s on display at the Kansas City Central Library.
Ralph Steadman’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Raoul Duke” illustrates Hunter S. Thompson’s drug-filled odyssey with lawyer Oscar Zeta Acosta. It’s on display at the Kansas City Central Library. Courtesy Kansas City Public Library

It wasn’t bat country. But FYI Book Club readers were happy to stop at the Central Library, talk about Hunter S. Thompson’s best-known work, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and tour the “Ralph Steadman: A Retrospective” exhibit to see some of the original artwork tied to the book.

All but one of the readers in the room knew of or had read Thompson’s trippy road novel about the dark side of the American Dream. None of them loathed it. All admitted to laughing at it.

Judith Reagan of Kansas City loved it. “I was very at home in the 1960s and I was back there from Page 1,” she said.

Kate Laws of Kansas City, Kansas, had seen the film version some 20 years ago and was surprised by the book. “I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “It freaked me out to watch the movie, but I love to read things I wouldn’t normally pick up. I thought I was done with this story, but I enjoyed reading it.”

Something else in the book caught the attention of Peggy Martinez of Kansas City. “I was fascinated with the way Thompson wrote about the trunk full of drugs – what the drugs could do, when to take them,” she said. “I like to be in control, and I just couldn’t imagine this situation.”

For one reader in the group, Thompson and his work were a complete surprise. “I had absolutely no preconceived notion of the book or the movie,” said Karin Bauer of Kansas City. “I saw the exhibit at the library before another event, and that made me pick up this book. I was laughing out loud. I haven’t read a book as quickly as I read this one. The dialogue was killing me.”

Participants began to laugh along with Bauer as she talked about the book and how foreign it was to her.

“At the time, I didn’t know if this was fiction or not,” she said. “I didn’t grow up here. I grew up in a small town in eastern France. It was a revelation to see this piece of Americana.”

hunter thompson
Hunter S. Thompson in 1997, just after waking up mid-afternoon in his San Francisco hotel room after a night on the town, with his ever-present scotch and cigarettes. He died in 2005. BOB PEPPING KRT

This observation led readers to discuss the factual and fictional elements of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

Deany Goode of Belton, asked the group, “If he’s talking about his hallucinations, that doesn’t make it fiction, does it? It was real to him.”

Answered Keanu Carson of Lenexa, “Isn’t that the point of gonzo journalism? It’s a little bit embellishment and a little bit the real deal? One of the drugs they listed didn’t even exist.”

“Some of the things Thompson describes couldn’t have been written without the experience,” Reagan said. “How would he have known this is what you feel like otherwise?”

“That,” said Carson, “is what makes Thompson a great writer. He’s able to take you on the trip whether you’ve done the drug or not. It’s like his writing is a drug in and of itself.”

Laws likened the drug trips – the “bat country” if his hallucinations – to Thompson’s search for the American Dream. “I don’t think the drug-inspired embellishments take away from the realness at the heart of the book,” she said. “Clearly, it’s the American Dream he has on his mind, and what or where is it. When Duke and Gonzo have these experiences and the drugs make the experiences unreal even to Thompson, they are extra unreal to us as readers.”

Everyone laughed when Anne Ducey of Kansas City brought up her favorite scene in the book. “They’re going through the drive-thru for tacos, and Dr. Gonzo asks the waitress about the American Dream. She thinks it’s the old Psychiatrists Club,” she said.

Said Goode, “The American Dream is whatever they want us to think it is, whatever they want us to buy. How about the guy who (owns) Circus Circus and wanted to run away with the circus when he was younger, and now he has his own circus?”

Martinez observed that “all of Las Vegas is the contemporary version of everyone’s American Dream.”

Dan Lybarger of Overland Park elaborated. “Las Vegas is where you overcome the odds and succeed where others have failed,” he said.

Josh Laws of Kansas City, Kansas, said he felt that Thompson was “trying to make a comparison between the extremes of drugs and what the Las Vegas tourists are doing with their gambling and drinking. It’s all so out-there and ridiculous.”

Bauer summarized the book and Thompson’s idea of the American Dream. “There’s nothing pretty about it when you read this book,” she said. “It’s gross and fascinating. It’s repulsive and attractive.”

ralph steadman
Ralph Steadman in his studio in Maidstone, England, in 2014. RIKARD OSTERLUND Ralph Steadman Studio

Kaite Stover is the Kansas City Public Library’s director of reader’s services.

Join the club

The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Public Library present a book-of-the-moment selection every few weeks and invite the community to read along. To participate in a book discussion led by the library’s Kaite Stover, email kaitestover@kclibrary.org. Look in the Arts+Culture section in August for an introduction to the next selection, “Lady From the Black Lagoon” by Mallory O’Meara.

More Hunter Thompson

▪ The exhibit: This discussion is in conjunction with a three-month exhibition, “Ralph Steadman: A Retrospective,” running through Sept. 8 at the Central Library. Among more than 100 of Steadman’s original works are several of his distinctive illustrations for “Fear and Loathing.” See kclibrary.org.

▪ The expert visit: Tim Denevi, a George Washington University assistant professor, will discuss his book “Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson’s Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism” on Aug. 21 at the Central Library.

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