The American Dream is a concept which first appears in The Epic of America. It is described as “That dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement…That dream or hope has been present from the start.” (Adams, xvi. And though it is certainly a term taken ambiguously at best, this classification is one that rings mostly true to its central idea, which is akin to the Horatio Alger pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps ideal. Although it can be taken in many different directions, the main idea is that it is associated with wealth and advancement. Hunter S. Thompson’s painfully comic novel, F hearing and Loathing at Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, aims to not only deconstruct such an idea and realize its absurdity but also to make fun of it. Thompson rejects the idea of the American Dream with such severity that he associates it with a hallucination-crazed, drug-induced weekend binge of absolute nonsensicalness.
It is important to understand the American Dream in its entirety before you can begin. Its essential property is that everyone should have equal opportunity, and that anyone can achieve success or prosperity by hard work. This requires some explanation, and there are many interpretations. What is success and what does it mean to be prosperous? This question is not easy to answer. Some people would consider a modest lifestyle with the minimal trappings as successful, while others may see it as a life of luxury and wealth. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing is rooted in autobiography. This is a fairly safe and accepted claim. He is also exposing himself to all drugs and misadventures around Las Vegas. While driving down Main Street, Thompson’s alias Duke said the following: “Ah yes. This is what it’s all about. Total control now. Tooling along the main drag on a Saturday night in Las Vegas, two good old boys in a fireapple-red convertible…stoned, ripped, twisted…Good People.” (Thompson 29). As subjective success can be as varied as snowflakes, so the American Dream idea is already beginning to see some distortion. Thompson believes that the above passage can be considered a universal definition of success. It can at least be taken as such.
What is “hard work?” Does it mean working 60 hours per week? It is important to remember that not all success stories include hard work. Is it true to claim that all Americans have equal opportunities? Is it really fair to assume that all Americans will reap the same benefits if a Black person puts in equal effort? Already, there is a huge margin that starts to form.
Duke, who is seen at Circus-Circus negotiating the purchase of a monkey (“Goddammit…I want the ape”), claims to be in the American Dream.
He seemed surprised. “You found the American Dream?” he said. “In this town?”
I nodded. “We’re sitting on the main nerve right now,” I said. (Thompson 190, 191)
The manager, as a child, wanted to escape to the circus, and he tells the story. He had his own circus. Bruce, the man he is speaking to at the bar, said, “Now the bastard has…a license to steal, too…You’re right–he’s the model.” (Thompson 191).
Thompson’s vision of the American Dream is fundamentally based on the fact that it is not in Las Vegas which is depicted as a crazy, nonsensical place, but in the Circus Circus, which is the epicenter for the absurd and harebrained. There are two possible interpretations of this statement. One interpretation is that “success” in America’s Dream is so individual, random, and subjective that it could be compared to the circus-circuits. However, from what is known of Hunter S. Thompson and his eccentricities and views on government/big-business America, a more likely interpretation is that the very idea of an “American Dream”, with all its ambiguities, false promises, and romanticism, is such a completely absurd and ridiculous idea that it is not only as ludicrous as a circus, but is comparable to the Circus-Circus while having been on a motley of hallucinogens.
Duke also claimed that the American Dream’s “model” is someone who joins a circus, gets his own and is then able to steal. This is how success in Circus-Circus management is determined by his ability to steal. This is a satirical view of the American Dream and Americans, as well as capitalism. In the passage above, Thompson depicts the American Dream as silly, absurd, and selfish. Thompson’s attack on America and the ideals it represents, such as the American Dream, is a striking one. Perhaps this will prompt a reevaluation.
Thompson also uses this analogy when Dr. Gonzo and Duke inquire about the American Dream. A waitress and a man called Lou then take it as a physical location. Thompson uses words to play with here, having the waitress remember the location of the physical place on a street called “Paradise”. This is a play on the idea that the American Dream will bring about a modern, capitalist, paradisiacal kind of success. This idea is also important because Lou and the waitress cannot pinpoint exactly where it is located. Thompson’s example shows that the American Dream is impossible to find because it doesn’t exist. The chase to success is what people cannot escape and the American Dream is unattainable. Lou continues on the tangent and asks “…did somebody just send you on a goose chase?” (Thompson, 165).
This further cements Thompson’s message, that the American Dream was a nonsensical ideal and impossible to achieve. Because success is subjective, America can sometimes be criminally judgmental and unequal. It is simply an absurd idea to even consider. After spending an entire chapter trying to determine the location of the American Dream (the supposed physical location), Duke and Gonzo finally reach what was once a psychiatrist’s club. It is described as “…a huge slab of cracked, scorched concrete in a vacant lot full of tall weeds. The owner of a gas station across the road said the place had ‘burned down about three years ago.'” (Thompson 168) The gas station owner across the street said that the place had been ‘burned down’ three years ago. Thompson’s metaphorical cake is topped with the fact that a psychiatrist is there to diagnose and treat mental illnesses. These are obvious comparisons. The American Dream chase is similar to a mental illness, a delusion. Thompson may even expand that analogy to a weekend of absurdities and hallucinations caused by drugs. The American Dream itself had been destroyed. Thompson suggests that there was no American Dream in abstract. It is now desecrated and has been left in such a condition that tall weeds have been allowed to thrive.
The trip may be viewed on a larger scale by the reader in a metaphorical (but not too abstract) light that relates it to the American Dream. Both Raoul Duke (and Dr. Gonzo) are both under intense hallucinogens. These are best known for their use in the counterculture of 1960s. Remember that Duke claims from the beginning of the novel that he is seeking “the American Dream”. This hallucinogen-binge may be referred to by the reader as Duke’s. On a larger scale, the counterculture and youth of the 1960s attempt to reclaim what society considers the American Dream. It was viewed as an essentially capitalist system until then. Duke and the 1960s counterculture tried to discredit this view and create their own version of the American Dream. The metaphor may be extended to show how Duke’s trip ended. He was left with a severe hangover and no signs of having achieved the American Dream he had hoped for. In a sense, the entire 1960s counterculture can be said to have been the same. Although the movement ended gradually and was resurrected with a societal “hangover”, it did not leave them with the “American Dream”.
This is not to suggest that there weren’t reformations. Many of those involved in the counterculture were able, through drug-induced hallucinations, to see that there was no universal American Dream. It was chimerical because of their misadventures. This view may be reflected in Thompson’s writings, where Thompson states that the American Dream’s “main nerve” was found at a circus.
You could view the novel as “Hunter S. Thompson is America (Copetas), which is to say that Thompson’s exploits at Las Vegas are the vulnerable, misguided and fragmented people from 1960s America’s counterculture. There are parallels between Thompson and the people who share his worldview as well as existential philosophy. One is confronted with uncertainty and indecision in a world where everything is falling apart. However, one can also rebuild the pieces in whatever way they want. This is a time when there is both possibility and chaos. Thompson’s trip to Las Vegas is his first step in exploring the waters. He hopes to find not the American Dream but his own purpose and sense of meaning in life.