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Monday, September 19, 2016

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1972) by Hunter S. Thompson

Image result for fear and loathing in las vegas
Johnny Depp plauyed Rauol Duke in the movie version of Fear and Loathing Las Vegas
Book Review
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1972)
 by Hunter S. Thompson

   My high school and college self really loved Hunter S. Thompson.  Not just Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but Hell's Angels, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972 and even the Rum Diaries.   Thompson represents the end of the 1960's counter-culture.  One of the most prescient sequences in modern fiction is the scene in this book where Raoul  Duke and Dr. Gonzo attend the annual conference of Drug Prosecutors and Police- capturing a moment at the very beginning of the decades long "War Against Drugs."   Thompson is actually capturing the moment, in his own words, where the "high-tide" of the 1960's counter culture smashed against the shore and the tide began to recede back into the ocean.

   If you consider that Thompson published Hell's Angels in 1966, two years before the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, you can make the claim that he was one of the first non-beats to fully appreciate the San Francisco "scene."  Thompson clearly refers to his own attendance at the acid tests held by the Merry Pranksters, and he cites Kesey in the text of Fear and Loathing.  Re-reading Fear and Loathing also made me consider the important role that magazine journalism, particularly Rolling Stone played in the development of the new journalism that Thompson epitomized. 

The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test (1968) by Tom Wolfe

The Furthur bus that Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters rode across the United States
Book Review
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)
by Tom Wolfe

   The "new journalism" of the 1960's involved non-fiction, long form journalism written from the perspective of a participant.  In that way, it resembled the canons of fiction, particularly those of the novel, and thus "new journalism" was the origin of the larger field of "creative non fiction," where writers of non-fiction do their best to emulate the stylistic concerns of novelists.   The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is one of the first AND the most popular example of this genre, and it is also, in my mind, the single best book about the origins of the west-coast hippie movement of the 1960's.

  It's also a book best read in the early stages of high school, which is when I read it for the first time.  This book, alongside On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, were the four titles that defined the counter-culture of the mid 20th century.  It's worth pointing out that only The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was actually published during the 1960's.  It's actually possible to read all four books in chronological order and maintain a narrative consistency.

  On the Road features thinly veiled versions of William Burroughs and Neal Cassady.  Naked Lunch was written by Burroughs during the time portrayed in On the Road.  The Electric Kool-Aid Acid test has Neal Cassady as a major characters, and relies on work done by Hunter S. Thompson.  Feart and Loathing in Las Vegas is essentially the death of all the dreams put forward in the previous three books.

  The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test tells the tale of Ken Kesey, successful novelist, and his Merry Pranksters, a group of young people (and an older Neal Cassady) who saw themselves as apostles for a religion centered around intake of drugs (Weed and LSD in particular) and a loosely defined spiritualism which incorporated lessons learned from earlier 20th century authors like Herman Hesse and Aldous Huxley.  Those looking for the positives and negatives of this fussy approach to awakening the spirit need go no further than the figure of Kesey himself, who was clearly the Christ figure (and financial sponsor) of this particular movement.

  Kesey was from rural Oregon, son of a well-off builder, who had made his way south after graduating from college to take an MFA (I think) in creative writing at Stanford.  There, he took a succession of odd jobs to pay his way, one of which involved being a test subject for hallucinogenic drugs.  He was smitten by LSD and sought to spread awareness by example.  Eventually, he and the pranksters came up with the ideas of "acid tests" where revelers would take acid and groove to the music of the band that would eventually be called The Grateful Dead.

   As much as my adolescent self was enthralled, as an adult I now see the deep flaws in their vision, not the least of which was Kesey's cowardly flight from prosecution into the wilds of Mexico.  He eventually makes his peace with the law by renouncing acid experimentation and retiring from public life after serving a short jail sentence, revealing himself to be more bourgeois than revolutionary.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Godfather (1969) by Mario Puzo

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Marlon Brando played The Godfather Vito Corelone in the hugely succesful movie version of the book.  Author Mario Puz co-wrote the script, and the finished film bears a remarkable resemblance to the novel.
Book Review
The Godfather (1969)
 by Mario Puzo

   If you grew up after the movie version of The Godfather, you might be forgiven for not knowing that it was even based on a book of the same name, by author Mario Puzo.  The book has maintained some amount of popularity as the source material for the insanely popular film series.  Perhaps the most surprising experience I derived from reading The Godfather is how little of the text DIDN'T make it into the film.   Indeed, never have I read the source material for a movie I've seen multiple times and spotted fewer changes between book and film.  I can't think of a single subplot that didn't make it from book to film with the exception of the story of the bridesmaid who is seen in the film banging Sonny at his sister's wedding.  In the movie, that's all she gets- in the book, she becomes Sonny's mistress, moves to Las Vegas to work in a Corleone casino after Sonny is gunned down, and even undergoes vaginal reconstruction in Los Angeles.

   The Godfather, the book, covers the time in the film from the story of young Vito Corelone, to the initiation of the movement of the Corelone family from New York to Las Vegas.  Puzo, a "serious" writer of literature before he published this book, famously wrote The Godfather to make a hit, and it is clear from every element of the book: plot and style.  Puzo's populist intent is clear on the combination of sex and violence with what amounts to an organizational description of the rise of Italian-American organized crime.  Unless you are a historian of crime, The Godfather IS the mafia.  Much of what our culture "knows" about the Mafia: The five families, the mixture of secrecy and flamboyant violence and the mixture of "American" values with the Sicilian "Omerta"(the law of silence), these all come direct from The Godfather and no where else.

    The Godfather is not one of the best written novels of all time, but it is one of the top 10 stories of the 20th century.  It is universally known to the point where even people who have never seen the film or read the book can quote from it in casual conversation, "I made him an offer he can't refuse."  One aspect of that line that the book makes clearer than the film is that the ultimate offer one can't refuse is to be murdered by The Godfather.

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