A Book That Makes You Happy
A book that makes me…happy?
I actually reflected on this one for quite some time before I was able to pinpoint a book that makes me happy. For those of you who know me, I needn’t mention that I find happiness to be perhaps the most transient thing on the planet–just watch the end of The Graduate to see what I mean–however, for those of you who don’t know me, I suppose I should provide a bit of an introduction to this post. It was Bob Dylan who once said, “Happy? Anyone can be happy. What’s the use in that?” And though I don’t know if I agree with Dylan on the idea that anyone can be happy, I’m definitely on board with his idea that there’s not much use in being happy besides for yourself. How many people who contributed to society were happy? That I can’t say, but in my field, the people who seemed to wear the air of discontent have made the biggest impact on me and my life. So, consciously or unconsciously, I find myself unhappy or at least discontent for the most part. And it’s in that attitude I find myself able to do work. I suppose we can leave it at that.
Anyway, when considering my bookshelf, I scanned the titles looking for a book that made me happy. That brought a smile to my face. I realized that my reading material that sticks with me is overwhelmingly depressing. As I write this, the book sitting next to me with a bookmark in it is Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, a book about the alcoholic descent of a man. Need I say more? Finally I came upon a book that flashed momentarily across my mind when I first read the prompt for today. The book I’ve chosen for today’s post is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson.
How can a book written about a few days of drug-addled activities make one happy? I’ll tell you. The two books that it came down to when deciding which to write about were Catch-22 and Fear and Loathing. The thing that made me choose one over the other was the taste it left in my mouth and what each book is discussing. Catch-22 is about bureaucracy, which automatically links to the idea of Kafka. Not to mention, it’s about ambition and people in power doing anything they can to push themselves to the top. That is just depressing, even though Yossarian escapes. Fear and Loathing on the other hand (though it has blue notes) left me in a state of optimism. Optimism?! You say as your walrus mustache bristles at the thought. Yes, optimism, I calmly reply.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas paints a stark picture of a man in a world he doesn’t understand. The times that he remembers and treasures have passed him by. The 60’s are gone at this time. Tricky Dick is in the White House now. The hippies failed in the task they had set themselves. No levitating of the Pentagon. No peace. No peace. So why the hell does this book make me happy? Listen to this:
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. 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 what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going abotu a hundred miles and hour with the top down to Las Vagas. 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.”
Are you laughing? You should be. What a random turn of phrase. We go from a hallucination to an image of an attorney pouring beer on himself to get a tan. What the hell?! Thompson does this again and again through the course of this book. The drugs he is on are different from the drugs that everyone else in the story are on. But they have the same effect. The cops and the insurance agents and the car salesmen in the book are on the drug of reality and all the things that come with it: patriotism, fervor, zealotry. And they are the cause of the fear for the protagonist, Raoul Duke. So how does Duke escape this fear and loathing (oh! allusion)? He does drugs. And not only does he do drugs, he has a sense of humor. Even as a drug-crazed narrator, we trust him (or at least I do) because he seems to be the one being honest as we’re seeing into his head. He’s telling us what he’s seeing, even if he isn’t on reality. And as Duke escapes the reality and his fear and loathing, he doesn’t only keep to himself. He strikes back. How does he do this? With his humor and his crazed drug binges. Because what do people in reality fear? What they don’t understand, of course. In the course of the book, Duke confronts people while he’s on drugs. And though no one understand him (at times, not even the reader) he understands himself, which makes him out to be the winner, in a way. He escapes understanding and pigeon-holing by his weirdness. This is underlined by the epigraph at the beginning of the book: “He who makes a best of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” -Dr. Johnson. Rendering himself unintelligible, Duke gets rid of this pain, this fear of living in a reality that is not to his liking, that has changed and left him alone and alien and now he is victorious over those who would deem him an animal or insane. This book serves as a kind of intimate conversation between Duke and someone who is willing to try to understand. Even if we’re not on drugs, the narrator recognizes us as someone worthy of confiding in, not like everyone else who are content to see him as crazy. We are branded by compassion and the narrator implies to us that he sees this, which in turn causes the reader to want to trust the narrator.
It is this victory in the face of unfamiliarity, lack of understanding, and alienation that makes me so happy when I read this book. I’m not looking to condone drug use or to condemn it when I write this. What I am saying is that Thompson or Raoul Duke seem to have found an alternative to suicide or assimilation in the face of change. Instead of striking out against it in a final measure of self-destruction or finally accepting it as inevitable, one can strike out against this change with measured, repeated gestures of nonconformity. Thompson or Duke’s way of resisting conformity was to do drugs. Though some say this is an anti-drug book, I believe that is simply a misreading of the entire book. As we see at the end of the book, Duke continues to provoke those adhering to the “normal” system in his own way and though he knows he isn’t really accepted, he is aware of his effect. “‘God’s mercy on you swine!’ I shouted at two Marines coming out of the men’s room. They looked at me, but said nothing. By this time I was laughing crazily. But it made no difference. I was just another fucked-up cleric with a bad heart. Shit, they’ll love me down at the Brown Palace. I took another big hit off the amyl, and by the time I got to the bar my heart was full of joy. I felt like a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger…a Man on the Move, and just sick enough to be totally confident.” I guess you can take that as you will.