“When you bring an act into this town, you want to bring it in heavy. Don’t waste any time with cheap shucks and misdemeanors. Go straight for the jugular. Get right into felonies.”
It’s been more than a half-century since Hunter S. Thompson went in search of the American dream on his drug-addled, off-the-rails road trip to Las Vegas.
His 1971 book, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” became an essential read for generations of teenagers who were just starting to question the world and came to define the desert gambling mecca. The book also gave birth to a new literary form, gonzo journalism, in which the reporter was a leading character — in this case a pill-popping, pot-smoking, tequila-swilling, acid-dropping “dope fiend” plunging headlong into the story.
The most enduring achievement of Mr. Thompson’s rich portfolio from the late 1960s and into the ’70s may well be how he — despite the drugs or because of them — so aptly distilled what was happening in the United States, as the disillusionment from the failures of a counterculture movement had taken hold like an iron glove around the throat.
Included in his catalog is a far less remembered piece Mr. Thompson wrote a few years later for Rolling Stone magazine, “Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl,” where he brought his caustic eye to the sport he loved, using the backdrop of the big game to explore how the authoritarian strains that were infecting politics had also poisoned football.
The story stemmed from an existential crisis, which arrived for Mr. Thompson when he came to realize during an interview with Richard Nixon, whom he’d caricatured as a political monster long before Watergate, that they shared a common trait — an obsession with football.
Now, all these years later, here we are this week in a place that seemed unimaginable then and feels so perfect and inevitable now: Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas.
The pairing of these transmogrified exemplars of American excess is primed for an assault on … what? the senses? decency? taste? modesty? … No, those are long gone.
So, too, is Mr. Thompson, who shot himself to death in 2005 at age 67, leaving behind his wife, his son and a suicide note titled “Football Season Is Over.”
This feels like a moment manufactured for him, as Las Vegas furthers the polishing of its image with the imprimatur of the N.F.L., which has made a seminal turn of its own with a public embrace of the gambling industry.
“It would have been interesting to see how Hunter would have written about this,” said Douglas Brinkley, the historian who is the literary executor of his works.
Las Vegas, he said, “no longer has the charm of motorcycle gangs, fringe gamblers and desert drifters. It’s this corporate zenith of mass consumerism run amok.”
He added: “The Super Bowl is a TV commercial extravaganza, a retail mall set up in the parking lots where the game is just one component. Because Hunter had learned the tricks of the trade — he was a sportswriter by training — he was perfectly suited to puncture the hypocrisies and the hype of the Super Bowl.”
The two teams in Sunday’s game, the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers, are not soaking up Las Vegas in the way of most visitors. They are banned from casinos by the N.F.L. until Sunday night, venturing near the Strip only from the comfort of the buses that shuttled them to a media event on Monday night.
The Vegas-ized Super Bowl party scene that kicked into overdrive on Friday will go on without them.
“Obviously, there’s a lot going on,” said Blake Bell, a tight end with the Chiefs. “But we don’t really see it.”
The teams are sequestered about 20 miles east along the shores of Lake Las Vegas, an artificial lake lined with faux-terra cotta resorts. To get there, you pass through the real Las Vegas: middle-class suburban tracts and mini-malls, then industrial zones, then blocks upon blocks of new homes under construction before the road climbs into vast empty expanses of red rock, given a richer hue in the last few days’ persistent rain.
Turning back, Las Vegas is a glittering speck in the center of an expansive, barren valley.
The Las Vegas that Mr. Thompson left behind also requires some squinting to see.
Much of it is gone. Circus Circus still exists, but it is no longer the place where, as he wrote, you could wander in at any hour and see a gorilla splayed on a neon cross that suddenly turns into a pinwheel, spinning around above a bustling casino floor — the main nerve of the American dream.
The casino where Mr. Thompson found psychedelics almost irrelevant now begs for anti-depressants. It’s the kind of place where room rates start at $25, the pit boss’s suit is three sizes too big, and the air this week carried a scent of cigarettes, perfume and despair.
A man named Daniel, with his wife and two children tucked away in their room, sat vacantly at a slot machine late one night on the Circus Circus casino floor nursing a beer and staring blankly across the room. He was down a couple hundred bucks, hoping his luck would turn.
Nearby, a woman named Hazel, with fake Chinchilla boots and an obscene T-shirt that was far too small, lamented seeing a homeless girl win $500 and then proceed to tap away on the same machine until she was down to 56 cents. “If you got lots of money, you enjoy yourself in Vegas,” she said. “If you’re like me, with a couple hundred bucks, you’re here.”
The scene was a little more upbeat downtown, a few miles north of the Strip. Along the Fremont Street pedestrian mall, under signs that advertised a steak and lobster dinner for $13.99, pairs of flamingo girls lingered in their flamboyant headdresses and lingerie, chatting up guys to have their picture taken with them.
After a few minutes, one pair found a mark. First, they posed side by side, smiling coyly. Next they draped a thigh across his lap. And for the coup de grâce, they pivoted, bent over and took a few lashes with a leather flogger for the camera.
When it was over, they told him the price: $100.
He haggled it down to $80.
The shakedowns take many forms.
On the Strip, a bustling miles-long, neon mall, which attracts the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, some prices are enough to make a Manhattanite blanch. A nine-ounce Japanese A5 Wagyu Ribeye sets you back $560 at the Bellagio and a Fendi purse barely large enough to hold a cellphone runs $4,400 at Aria. Any pocket change remaining can be blown on a $35 High Roller Ferris wheel ride.
Nobody, though, has mastered the art of monetary extraction like the N.F.L.
Eight years ago, it moved media day — when players and coaches from both teams are bombarded with mostly silly, banal or redundant questions from outlets and other assorted attention seekers — to prime time on Monday night from Tuesday morning.
It is now branded as Super Bowl Opening Night, broadcast by the NFL Network, sponsored by a sports drink company and open to fans for $30. If you forget headphones, you can purchase a set for $20 at the stadium’s credit card sponsored N.F.L. Shop.
The N.F.L. announced 23,823 fans attended Opening Night, a record.
Super Bowl VIII, which Mr. Thompson chronicled in 1974, may hold a distinction all these years later as the most boring. Miami ground out touchdowns on its first two possessions, pitched a shutout until late and throttled Minnesota, 24-7. Miami quarterback Bob Griese threw just seven passes, completing six, a record low for a winning quarterback that seems certain never to be broken.
That’s a good place to start when considering how much the N.F.L. has changed in 50 years. Patrick Mahomes, the superlative Kansas City quarterback, may complete that many passes on his first drive Sunday.
Another is gambling. In “Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl,” Mr. Thompson’s dispatch from the game, he grabs any bet he can on Miami with other sportswriters, so certain is he that the Dolphins will win. The Vikings were interminably uptight. Their coach, Bud Grant, Mr. Thompson wrote, “spent the week acting like a Marine Corps drill sergeant with a terminal case of the piles.”
When Mr. Thompson’s postgame chat with Miami owner Joe Robbie, whom he had known from the 1972 presidential campaign, is interrupted by the writer Larry Merchant handing him a $50 bill, Mr. Thompson realizes this is not a good look for Mr. Robbie.
“The only thing worse than being seen with a known gambler is finding yourself in the white-light glare of a network TV camera in the company of an infamous drug abuser … ”
Now the N.F.L. has agreements with sports betting companies reportedly worth nearly $1 billion over five years, even though betting on sports remains taboo for players and league employees. One team even has a sports book inside its own stadium. A billboard announces that Boyd is the official local casino of the Las Vegas Raiders.
When Mr. Thompson set out to document the Nixonian similarities between politics and pro football, he unwittingly glimpsed today’s N.F.L., where access is restricted, interviews are stage managed and the days of reporters watching practice from the sideline — let alone sharing a post-practice beer with players or coaches — are long gone.
If Las Vegas’s image has been remade as an entertainment destination, its growth has continued to be fueled by a renewable resource: Californians seeking cheaper homes and lower taxes. But because jobs in that industry tilt toward low skilled — and the corporate casino profits don’t remain in the community — incomes have largely stagnated over the last decade.
Still, the latest waves have continued to diversify the city, ensuring that Nevada is closely watched in election years, as it was during Tuesday’s primary and in Thursday’s caucuses.
It was out into this world that Gregory A. Borchard, a professor at U.N.L.V., would send his journalism students, most of whom had grown up in Las Vegas, when he taught a class on “Fear and Loathing.” Their assignment: go find the American dream.
“Everybody knows this drug guru mystique and they celebrate it, but what they lose track of is the writing style,” Mr. Borchard said. “It’s clean and pure. He was a hell of a wordsmith.”
Few books begin with a sentence that better informs the reader of the wild ride ahead: “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” And few close with a more vivid summation of an unrepentant soul, bouncing into a bar after a couple hits of amyl: “I felt like a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger … A Man on the Move, and just sick enough to be totally confident.”
Mr. Brinkley said the way Mr. Thompson’s skills as a sophisticated political thinker, gumshoe reporter and deft writer came together in “Fear and Loathing” is its own Horatio Alger up-from-his-bootstraps story.
But over time, the weight of his masterpiece’s brilliance and his celebrity as a persona writer became a millstone — that and the years of alcohol and drug use that wreaked havoc on his body. To a college student who felt the siren call of journalism at a time when Watergate’s wake had not yet receded, an early lesson on the folly of idol worship arrived my senior year when Mr. Thompson spoke at my school. He spent a not-very-long interview mumbling incoherently.
“It gets hard and tiring,” Mr. Brinkley said, describing his friend as a mensch and a typhoon who perpetually needed work to fund his lifestyle.
“As he got older, the good news is Hunter had a distinctive style. It’s hard to find a voice and he did. On the other hand, people wanted Hunter Thompson attending the spectacle and it’s hard not to repeat yourself. You can be stuck in your own shadow.”
Back on Fremont Street, away from the football bubble and the Strip, a specter of the monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger seemed very much alive.
Milling about with Edward Scissorhands, Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka and so many of the characters Johnny Depp has played, there was Hunter S. Thompson himself: Hawaiian print shirt, Tilley hat, yellow tinted aviators and a cigarette holder — a reasonable facsimile of Mr. Depp in the movie version of “Fear and Loathing,” itself now more than 25 years old.
No cheap shucks or misdemeanors here.
Surely, having immersed himself in “Fear and Loathing,” he had done a deep character study, having driven in from Los Angeles with the trunk of his convertible loaded up with enough drugs to disable an elephant, committed unspeakable acts in Las Vegas and made a grim assessment of the state of things.
Um, sorry, dude.
“I know nothing about the book,” the impersonator said.