Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas | Study Guide

Hunter S. Thompson

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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas | Part 1, Chapter 6 : A Night on the Town ... Confrontation at the Desert Inn ... Drug Frenzy at the Circus-Circus | Summary

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Summary

On Saturday night Duke and Dr. Gonzo take the Las Vegas Strip, passing a topless bar Duke considers "bush-league sex compared to L.A. ... gambling is the kicker here." Duke recalls a friend from California who won big in Reno for several weekends in a row. He vowed to stop when he was up $15,000, but the casino manager offered him a private plane and suite. He returned from that trip $30,000 in debt. He sold his store and took a beating when the proceeds wouldn't cover the debt. Duke knows Vegas is even tougher than Reno.

Duke and Dr. Gonzo go to the Desert Inn where they claim to be friends of Debbie Reynolds, the featured performer. They get into the show and see her "yukking across the stage in a silver afro wig to the tune of 'Sergeant Pepper'" played on a trumpet. They get kicked out in short order.

At Circus-Circus, the duo is high on ether, which Duke declares "the perfect drug for Las Vegas." It impairs motor and speech function, making the user appear extremely drunk, and "In this town they love a drunk." Inside, a trapeze act with women and wolverines unfolds above the casino floor, while patrons play carnival games on the balconies around the casino. Duke and Dr. Gonzo are high on mescaline in the Merry-Go-Round bar, which makes Dr. Gonzo declare that "this place is getting to me. I think I'm getting the Fear." Duke calls the place the "vortex" of the American dream. "You must realize that we've found the main nerve," he says and points out two women having sex with a polar bear. Dr. Gonzo wants to leave but has some trouble getting off the merry-go-round until Duke pushes him off.

Analysis

Duke provides the first of several discussions about the violent enforcement underlying the gambling industry in Nevada. His neighbor's history is a tale of a sensible man who resolves to quit while he is ahead, but who is sucked into the casinos again with promises of extra luxury and favorable treatment. When he cannot cover his losses, the threat of violence sends him further into debt. This is the sinister paradox of casino culture. They promise the trappings of wealth and luxury, but underneath the glittery surface is seedy danger and moral depravity. Duke emphasizes this story took place in Reno, the smaller and presumably less dangerous counterpart to Las Vegas, to illustrate as harrowing as his neighbor's tale is, it would have gone much worse for him in Las Vegas.

The Debbie Reynolds show illustrates how the culture of Las Vegas, and the early 1970s in general, has supplanted and corrupted the counterculture of the 1960s. Reynolds is a privileged white movie star who rose to prominence in the 1950s. Now she is in Las Vegas wearing a silver afro wig, appropriating a hairstyle popular with the black participants of the civil rights movement who adopted the afro, also known as "natural," as a means of embracing their black heritage instead of attempting to coax their hair into white hairstyles. Her use of the wig makes a mockery of the hairstyle's original intent. Likewise, she is dancing to music from the Beatles Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, taking a song from an album embraced by the counterculture and turning it into a bland facsimile.

The Debbie Reynolds performance provides a callback to a moment in Part 1, Chapter 3, when Duke observes Beatles guitarist and singer John Lennon's post-Beatles attempts to convey a political message in his music. Lennon sings "'Power to the People—Right On!'" over the radio. Duke says the song is ten years too late, and Dr. Gonzo comments, "That poor fool should have stayed where he was...Punks like that just get in the way when they try to be serious." Although Lennon's attempts at political consciousness are miles away from the bland sanitizing of his music in Reynolds's show, Duke and Dr. Gonzo judge Lennon's career trajectory to be equally out of touch with the peak of the Beatles' popularity and their place in counterculture. Both Reynolds's mainstreaming of the music and Lennon's "serious" career represent a move away from the pure artistic expression of the Sergeant Pepper album.

The Circus-Circus casino puts new varieties of grotesquerie on display for Duke and Dr. Gonzo. Much of what they see is probably the result of the drugs. It is unlikely anyone is having sex with a polar bear in public, and the waitress's offense when Dr. Gonzo asks her about it indicates this vision takes place only in his mind. However, the Circus-Circus is the kind of atmosphere that makes such a scene seem plausible through the prism of mescaline and ether. There is an acrobatic act taking place in the space above the casino. The atmosphere embodies the surreal and manic energy of a carnival, which is both entertaining and vaguely frightening. This atmosphere gives Dr. Gonzo "the fear" because it's even more unreal than the unreality created by the drugs. Duke, by contrast, looks at the depravity unfolding around him and sees this as the decomposed version of the American dream characteristic of Las Vegas culture.

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