There is a certain kind of young man – and possibly young woman too, but that's a different essay – who likes books and is searching for direction in his life, who one day stumbles across a particular book and decides yep, this is what it means to be a man; this novel is my roadmap and my bible.
(Said book is almost never the actual Bible.)
In older generations, men used The Stranger, On the Road and Catcher in the Rye to become disaffected beatniks and surly iconoclasts. Some of my contemporaries welded themselves to Fight Club and started railing about the traps of societal expectation and the need to stay in shape. Future literary rebels will probably latch onto, I dunno, Game of Thrones and be really into blood and nudity and downloading TV shows for free. Actually, that might already be happening.
Me? I read Hunter S Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and it changed my life.
Specifically, it turned me into kind of a douchebag for about a decade.
How? Let me count the ways.
One: I partied too hard
I'm not going to get into the details of exactly what 'partying' means, because I don't want to drill down into my past in a public forum. Let me just say that I did my share of partying – and your share, and possibly the share of the person sitting next to you. I was dedicated in my excess. And why not? It was fun, I had good time, I made friends on the dance floor and no-one got hurt.
Well, no-one but me, with my creaky knees and overtaxed organs and persistent tinnitus. And my other friends, who didn’t see me anymore because I was always at raves hanging out with the perpetually munted. And my poor, poor housemates, who put up with so much. And my career, where I shuffled hungover through a string of temp jobs, where I kept blowing freelance deadlines because I was out dancing and drinking every night when I should have been writing.
(Some frank advice on that front: while you can crank out 10 000 words in a weekend with zero sleep, they will probably not be your best words. Many of them may not be words at all.)
Can I blame Fear and Loathing for that? It's not like Thompson held a gun to my head (although he did do that to some people), but the book awakened in me this notion that a man should be some kind of Rabelaisian figure of gargantuan appetites, that the way a writer experienced life was to the full at every opportunity.
What a writer should do is write. I kinda wish I'd done more of that and less tequila.
Two: I developed blindspots about sexism
Wait, that can't be true. I'm a feminist. I'm a big supporter of women's rights, of equality, of pushing back against patriarchy. I've written a tonne of stories with female POV characters, including a full-length novel! And Fear and Loathing isn't a sexist book!
A few years back a female friend read Fear and Loathing on my recommendation. She absolutely hated it, and pointed out all the ways that women are sidelined, damaged, brutalised by both the main characters and the world they inhabit. It's a book full of violence towards women that Duke and Gonzo either ignore or perpetuate.
And all I could think to say was, 'I never saw it like that.'
It's easy not to see things when you don't have to. It's easy to ignore a book's depiction of women because it's not about women, it's about men. It's easy to think 'what a terrible thing that guy did' and then just move on to the next paragraph, because that stuff is incidental, it's not important, and you can be a great ally while ignoring the things that aren't important. To you.
It's okay to like problematic things – so long as you admit the problems. I didn't for a long time, or even realise that there was a problem to admit to. And when you do that, you are the problem.
I think I'm better than that now.
I have to.
Three: I quoted the damn book all the damn time
Like, seriously, all the damn time. It's an amazingly quotable book, with verve and swagger in its writing, and I read and re-read it constantly, even listened to radio-play versions on repeat, until I could rattle off chapter and verse for any occasion.
This is bad for two reasons. One: like those people who always quote Monty Python, it made me very annoying at parties. Two: I lost my own voice and just talked like Thompson. More, I wrote like Thompson, or as much like him as I could manage, without fully developing my own unique style. Pretty much every story and essay I wrote in those days now reads like pastiche, and no, you can't read them, they all got deleted.
It's for the best. It was a mercy killing.
Everyone has influences, and there's nothing wrong with learning from the writers that speak to you. But you have to be more than an echo of other, better, more original writers. You have to give readers a reason to read you, rather than just going upstream to where the word-waters are purer and getting that original taste. It took me way too long to learn that, and I haven't finished learning yet.
Nonetheless, if someone says something especially dumb at a party, I'll still mutter 'No more of that talk, or I'll put the leeches on you.' Because that's funny, damnit.
Four: I used a fictional character as my role model for masculinity, and that is dumb
Not for the first time, either. I did the same thing with Batman in my teens.
And folks, having done the experiment, I'll say it to you straight; it's better to emulate Bruce Wayne than Raoul Duke.
Five: None of that matters
...because I still freaking love Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I always will, even though it's not Thompson's best work (that's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, which has actual proper journalism mixed with the drugs and madness). Even though it has some major problems with its depiction of women; even though its main characters (and its author, let's be honest) are terrible people. I will always love Thompson's writing; I will always love that line about the high-water mark where the tide of hope and social change crested and rolled back; I will always be able to quote the opening pages verbatim.
But I don’t need to treat it like a guidebook any more. And that's probably for the best.
...no more of that talk, or I'll put the leeches on you.
Patrick O'Duffy is a very tall chap who works in publishing, plays too many games and writes fantasy, horror and weird crime stories, including the novellas Hotel Flamingo and The Obituarist. All of his book details and blog posts can be found at www.patrickoduffy.com
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.