Tamara Turner/Daily

Almost 17 years ago today, the renowned journalist Hunter S. Thompson, author of the classic novel “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” shot himself in the head in his Colorado home. Following years of struggle with crippling health issues and bouts of depression, Thompson’s outlook on life dwindled over the years as he watched the era of counterculture and revolutionary upheaval fade from the American horizon, now taken over by mindless consumerism and romanticized atavism for the “good old days.” The passionate idealism that once dominated the youthful landscape of the United States — the pleas to “Make Love Not War” and the cries for political equality and freedom — had faded before Thompson’s very eyes, resulting in a dim reality that he was grossly critical of. 

Despite his dwindling optimism for a better future, Thompson, in his attempt to admonish the people that fed into this disillusioned society, had accidentally spearheaded a journalistic revolution that had the potential to beguile readers worldwide. His work reads like a lullaby for proliferant romantics, but cuts sharp and deep where it needs to. 

Through his writing, Thompson revolutionized the idea of “gonzo journalism,” a type of nonfiction narrative that becomes so altered by the speaker’s subjective interpretation that it becomes a different beast entirely. Placing more emphasis on the narrator rather than the events at hand, gonzo journalism allowed Thompson to insert his opinionated (and sometimes cynical) views on life into his writing — and fundamentally altered the structure of cultural criticism pieces. While there is much to be said about Thompson and his profound contributions to postmodern literature, the bulk of his eloquent anthropological critique is featured in his most infamous novel, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” — one that allowed the reader to peer inside the mind of a pessimistic idealist and watch his world unravel. 

Thompson, you see, started off as a small-time journalist, publishing pieces in various magazines and journals until Sports Illustrated asked him to cover a motorcycle race in Las Vegas, Nevada. Doped up on marijuana, ether, speed and anything else he carried around in his “briefcase of narcotics,” Thompson instead presented an almost 3,000-word long ‘gonzo’ piece that was immediately rejected by Sports Illustrated

The Rolling Stone magazine, however, believed in Thompson’s limitless potential and sent him back to Vegas to cover the District Attorney’s anti-narcotics convention. The cumulative result of Thompson’s composition was a belligerently stimulating yet philosophically ravishing novel titled “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” later made into a film starring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro, and becoming a cult classic among the fan community, myself included. 

I will admit — I had watched the movie long before I had ever considered picking up the book, but the film began to feel like a drug, drawing me in further and further until I couldn’t resist reading Thompson’s writing firsthand. The narrative, in both formats, is just as unintelligible and meaningless as one might predict, but the beauty, for me, lies in the revelations of Thompson’s didactic monologues and finally feeling the irascibility that he felt. Just like most viewers, I did not exactly comprehend the plot correctly the first time around. But, like a good painting, Thompson’s works must be studied under a microscope, where the beauty is not found in the sum of the parts, but the parts themselves.

The novel is a roman à clef of Thompson’s own adventures, a fictional piece that features real events and real people with fake names. Narrated in the first person, the reader closely follows Raoul Duke (Hunter Thompson’s transplant within the novel) and his Samoan lawyer, Dr. Gonzo, as they wreak havoc in Las Vegas and on the people around them, all while ingesting almost-lethal levels of  LSD, adrenochrome and other narcotics. Mentally and physically strung up by the free-spirited period of the 60s, Duke hopelessly tries to keep the era alive with virtually no success. Toward the end of the novel, Duke finds himself reflecting on the bygone era of counterculture, remarking how foolish those “pathetically eager acid freaks” were for thinking they could buy peace and understanding for three bucks a hit.

To the unlearned bookworm, “Fear and Loathing” reads like a usurpation of modern values, a 300-page long hallucinogenic trip that promotes nothing but drug abuse and ceaseless hedonism. But to the trained eye, Thompson’s novel is a much more harrowing piece that mourns as much as it celebrates. It illustrates a glistening utopia that was once just out of our reach; the new reality of our America has faded to some kind of mangled beast, a distorted present where no one cares about anything or anyone — a reality that Thompson couldn’t live with. 

Whenever I pick up “Fear and Loathing,” I am ultimately entranced by Thompson’s manipulation of perception and his immersive reality. There is an intangible component of his writing that adapts and molds to the reader, urging change from within. Perhaps it lights that spark in the rebellious part of my soul, one that (I hope) exists in all of us. As the recently passed novelist Joan Didion once wrote, “our favorite people and our favorite stories become so not by an inherent virtue, but because they illustrate something deep in the grain, something unadmitted.” Didion, much like Thompson, was also somewhat of a “counter-journalist,” intent on critiquing the socio-cultural aspects of current America through emphasis on racial and sociological components.

Attracting a strictly dichotomous crowd of either blind haters or intrigued admirers, Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing” comments on a hopeless time much like our own. An era plagued by Nixon, the Vietnam war, and the resurgent energy crisis, the ’70s turned its back to all the good the pioneers of the decade before it had hoped to achieve; the dream that figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Che Guevara and Cesar Chavez once held that dwindled to a soft flame and then went out. Thompson watched the backbone of America degrade to an unimaginable state, a complete 180 from the period that boasted peace and perseverance.

By the turn of the new millennia, the energy and excitement that had once snowballed into a potential current for change had been shattered into smithereens, resulting in a conservative, winner-takes-all-and-leaves-none-to-rot individualism that swept the 2000s. Social Darwinism became the new collectivism, and the ultimate badge one could wear would illustrate how many hours of your life you had devoted to capitalist crusades and covert cupidity.

Wall Street. 9/11. War on Terror. 

Thompson fell further into his depression, remarking that 67 was too decrepit of an age to live to, 17 years past the ultimate prime. He shot himself in the head in the dull month of February, while on the phone with his wife. Although he didn’t live long enough to see the days of the 2008 recession, or the weekly school shootings, or the deplorable Trump era, Thompson had predicted it all. 

The 2020’s. The time is our own. Our Nixon is Trump, our cigarette crisis is the Juul epidemic, our country still hates immigrants but loves gerrymandering, and our ambition is still fruitless. 

Still, even a broken clock is right twice a day. 

Following the events of the COVID-19 pandemic, our nation has witnessed another rise in counterculturalism and revolutionary idealism. Our generation is hungry for something more, something independent, something radical. In a time when college students can no longer dream of owning a house, funding their own education, or attaining a retirement fund, the rise of counterculture greets us once again.

When I entered elementary school, I was told that I would be able to reap all the sweet fruits of life if only I would work hard toward my goals and maintain self-discipline. It was a mirage, I think. Because today, I am standing in the middle of a moral desert, gripping on to those empty promises that were once whispered in my ears. The fact of the matter is, many of us have nothing to show for our subordination to societal standards. I am an immigrant, so college was never an option for me — it was a necessity. Yet, the degree I am earning now might be unable to support me in the way I originally intended it to. I am a woman, so having control of my own reproductive and bodily rights is of utmost importance to me. Yet, I read about Roe v. Wade potentially being overturned every week. Our generation follows the comedown of a gilded tragedy, rewards once promised but never bestowed — but don’t think we haven’t noticed.

Young people across the nation have, once again, become outspoken about the things they care about most: economic inequality, police brutality, women’s rights and proliferating racism. Perhaps as a reaction to the desolate reality our parents had to live through, our generation has cyclically reached another era of sweeping change — and the pressing urge to realize what our predecessors could not. 

Yes, I think “Fear and Loathing” was intended to be an apprehensive warning for future generations; however, Thompson’s ideology stood for much more than gross antagonism. He spoke of optimism, of riding high and beautiful waves of change, of eloquent absurdism and of his own incapacities. Thompson was one of the pioneers of a new era of postmodernism, literature that attempts to comment on society much more than it tries to emulate it.

His brash and spiky words can easily be misconstrued as hopelessness, a kind of ill-fated malaise that is bound to plague society. But in my eyes, Hunter Thompson saw the brightest future of all: a time when the strength for change lies in the hands of the people. As a writer, he finds meaning and value through recognizing the absurd and the senseless. 

Thompson has taught me how to say more by writing less. His words have infiltrated my brain like a virus — what if we’re all “too weird to live, and too rare to die?” Now, I am much too eager to write about life through the eye of the absurd narrator, the lens of a journalist who took one too many drugs. It’s still easy for me to witness and observe the inadequacies of society, but I do it in a much more expectant way. I write about things we can change, about the little vices we keep around in our pockets to keep us sane throughout the day, about the lunar retrogrades and the new movies and about old, worn-down institutions and the young, raw wounds of a generation grappling with an uncertain future. 

Will this finally be the time we get to see real change? Is there finally room for another socio-political rebellion? What is the new American Dream and can it even be attained?

Resources are depleted, the Earth is dying, and it feels like these pressing issues are not enough to foster change; these fears grow and grow until they become a permanent component of our minds, constantly weighing down on our psyche.

How many more lies will we be told? How many times do we have to clock in and clock out before the 1% will admit they’re exploiting us? How many more kids will have to lose their lives to their firearm-manic peers before new policies are enacted? This generation is growing up enraged and bitter, and no one seems to care. But where the pioneers of the ’60s failed to make their mark, another opportunity arises for us, to finally engage in sweeping change, to facilitate usurpations of the powers that manipulate us daily and to make the wrongs a little more right. 

What matters now is that we head Thompson’s warning — do not fall into another damp well of shallow activism. Do not rely on drugs or the media or personal ambition to get us where we need to go, for real change requires real courage, courage that cannot be bought for $15 a tab or $120 an ounce. 

Hunter Thompson could not live with the failure of his peers, a generation that was brimming with idealistic potential and made to clean up its own spillage — a depleted frenzy and the comedown that follows. 

The hour hand goes around the number twelve once more, and the opportunity for a better world rises again. I only hope we have the guts to genuinely seize it this time.

Statement Columnist Valerija Malashevich can be reached at valerija@umich.edu.