I recently did a post about famously recognizable opening lines in novels.
There is one book that was not mentioned in this context and, in the spirit of the list, I must now introduce the only book on the top 20 list that is considered "non-fiction." I say considered, despite the fact that book #11 on my top 20 list is routinely filed under "current affairs" and/or "journalism." Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction.
Behold, the opening line that I still routinely quote:
"We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold."and then:
Yes, oh Hunter S. Thompson, your Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is #11 on my list of favorite books of all time.
I remember saying something like "I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive...." And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming "Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?"
Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process. "What the hell are you yelling about?" he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses. "Never mind," I said. "It's your turn to drive." I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red Shark toward the shoulder of the highway. No point mentioning those bats, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough.
It's not only Thompson's writing, but Ralph Steadman's psychotic illustrations that punctuate the text, that combine to provide an incredible reading experience.
It is interesting, as well, nearly 30 years later, knowing how much Las Vegas has changed its face, that deep down is still the rotting core of American greed, driving an economy based on gambling and sex.
People either love Vegas or hate it. There's an endless tream of popular culture attached to it, from the Rat Pack, to Robert Urich's Vegas, to Stephen King's apocalyptic The Stand, to Scorsese's Casino, to CBS' groundbreaking CSI:Las Vegas, and the surgically-augmented NBC hit Las Vegas.
But I digress. I love Vegas, in part due to this book. It is amazing piece of writing. It is hilarious and irreverent. It holds such a place in my heart, that I have yet to muster the courage to sit through Terry Gilliam's film based on the book, and I love Gilliam's work as well.
By the way, all you holiday shoppers, an unsigned first edition (below)
makes a great holiday gift and can be bought for only a cool $1000.
After college, I would join a group of friends in an annual pilgrimage to Vegas for the opening weekend of football season and an obligatory bachelor party. On more than one occasion, I would crack open my dog-earred copy of Fear and Loathing... and read it to whoever was nearby, usually the person driving the car, and usually right outside of Barstow. It was transcendent.
I have many Vegas stories, but as they say, what happens there, stays there, but I will share here one of many Thompson-esque moments. In fact, I will leave you with the one that I feel had "Fear and Loathing" all over it.
I do not recall the year. Early 1990's. Treasure Island had just opened. Those of you who have been there know that they have a pirate show in the area in front of the hotel, a huge pyrotechnic display with pirate ships and acrobats and swinging pirates. We had pledged as a group to see it. We decided for the 6:30 show. It was Labor Day weekend and the temperature was in the high, dry 90s. There were perhaps a dozen of us crashed out in an Imperial Palace suite. Or it may have been another hotel, they all blur together.
I awoke in a chair in the room, disoriented. I was not completely sober. My watch read 6:25. A film was playing on the TV. It was called "Autobiography of a Flea." The plot synopsis is here. Before you link, let me just say that one of the stars was John Holmes. That may be enough for you. There were a few friends unconscious around me, but the main proponents of going to see the Pirate Show were absent.
I tried to rouse the remaining people in the room. No one was interested. Alone, I stumbled from the room, stumbled into the elevator, stumbled into the casino. I wended my way through the labyrinthine chaos that is any casino floor and found an exit that I remembered would regurgitate me out in the direction of Treasure Island.
The heat, even at 6:28 PM, was rudely brutal, as I shot out through revolving doors onto the strip. I had no sunglasses, the waning sunlight and flickering neon disoriented me. I felt like a zombie, there was a crowd moving toward Treasure Island in a big amorphous blob. Time slowed. I looked to my right, next to a retaining wall, were three homeless people, grubby and out of place among the tourists on the strip. I locked eyes with one of them, a double-amputee in an old wheelchair. His eyes were dark wells of suffering that sucked at me as I walked past, was pulled past by the current of the crowd. It seemed horrifying that, at the base of all this glitz and wealth and consumption, there was this vision of abject poverty and demoralized humanity. It was haunting, but I was drawn with the masses, away from reality to the spectacle that replayed like clockwork. Cannons roared, flames heated up the sizzling sky, water sprayed from imaginary cannonballs. The crowd groaned its approval. I miraculously found one of my friends in all the chaos. We watched rapt, as the image of the downtrodden was washed away by special effects. The imprint, however, has remained etched into my memories of Las Vegas, on the edge of the desert, glittering like an American dream.