Saturday, March 28, 2009


HST's "Vegas book" still rocks after all these years. It's a masterpiece of the counterculture, the ultimate Sixties drug novel, a superb cultural satire, and an all-around excellent example of American prose voice. This last element, the 'American voice,' is one of the great innovations of the period 1955-80 in our literature. Consider the very different voices of William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, the Norman Mailer of Why Are We In Vietnam and Armies of the Night, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Michael Herr, etc., etc. I suppose Vegas's version of this 'American voice' descends from William Faulkner via Kerouac to Thompson, who adds generous amounts of LSD and indigenous American weirdness to create one of the strangest--and perhaps one of the best--American novels of the late 20th century. Ultimately a serious (and seriously funny) elegy for the druggy 60s optimism that crashed into a Nixonian bad trip, the book is a riposte (one of many) to the old neoconservative conviction that the Sixties produced no great novel. In fact, as all literate people know, the counterculture gave us far more great novels than the now-bankrupt neoconservative ideology ever will--and writers influenced by the works of counterculture figures continue to appear. (In the Great Comparative Literature Poker Game, I will see the neocons' Ravelstein and raise them a Gravity's Rainbow.)

But what especially impresses me about Thompson's book on this reading is the mixture of beautiful elegiac meditations and drugged-out surrealism, as well as the book's speed, its breakneck pace. It moves like a Vincent Black Shadow through the labyrinthine backstreets of America's most artificial city. And it's all held together by Thompson's wonderful tone. Yes, it all comes back to the voice, that prose style that almost never falters, that hurls us in medias res on page one and propels us through the next 200 pages--even if we only keep reading to see what outrage it will describe next. In this respect, it's a book to learn from.

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