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Top Ten Novels According To Someone Who Actually Read Them: Part Two

Jeremy Hunter Pop Culture and Literature

  5.

“Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas” by Hunter. S Thompson 

Hunter S. Thompson was a crazy motherfucker – a certified loose cannon, dead-set on destruction of conformity. Through that destruction, Thompson became the Godfather of Gonzo Journalism, with a majority of his early journalistic work having appeared in Rolling Stone Magazine. Starting in November, 1971, the first of two issues of what would become “Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas” were featured in the legendary literary magazine, illustrated by the masterful Ralph Steadman. Both issues, I might add, were sold through Mile High Vinyl in early March of this year, and are among the most sought-after issues of the magazine currently in print. The opening line to “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” got straight to the point without missing a beat; 

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. 

Although vague, this line solidifies the direction of the entire story, and of the hazy atmosphere of the time period. The late 1960’s and early seventies left a creamy shit stain which permanently faltered the reputation of the United States, through the unnecessary and cold-blooded war which waged on in Vietnam. This war led to the formation of a counterculture which culminated in Woodstock, leading to a flurry of psychedelic drug use, promiscuous sex and protesting -- not only the protesting of the Vietnam War, but also protesting the politics of the time. This counterculture of protest led journalists to formulate and detail the ongoing atrocities in Vietnam, as well as throughout the States and the rest of the world, which made literary magazines such as Rolling Stone Magazine all the more relevant. Hunter S. Thompson heavily criticized both the Vietnam War, as well as United States President, Richard Nixon, who Thompson undoubtedly hated with a passion – which influenced his literary work significantly. Thompson also had no need to give into the demands of conformity, which became the basis of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” -- the fundamental pursuit of freedom. 

Freedom may mean a lot of things to many people, but never one solitary thing to everyone. To one person, freedom may be something as simple as having a bed to sleep in at night, or having the freedom to worship any God of their choosing without fear of persecution. To someone like Hunter S. Thompson, who walked to the beat of his own drum, his idea of freedom at the time of writing “Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas” consisted of being able to drive through the Nevada desert with a briefcase filled with every drug known to man with his psychotic and unpredictable lawyer by his side to find the heart of the American Dream.  

The story, which follows Raoul Duke (Thompson’s alter ego) and Dr. Gonzo, who was based on Thompson’s actual lawyer, Oscar Acosta, has the duo head through the Nevada desert to Las Vegas where Raoul is set to report on the Mint 400 motorcycle race. However, a majority of the assignment is hindered by Raoul and Oscars consistent drug use, with the pairs fucked-up and inexplicable shared experiences and hallucinations flipping the entire story on its axis. This obscurity made the novel all the more readable and relatable to the period. Actually, by Thompson deciding to forgo the assignment of reporting exclusively on the race, he found a story much more entertaining and somehow filled with more substance through Thompson’s loose and hazy thoughts on the counterculture movement of the sixties, and how the entire decade of the sixties had been a massive failure. The American Dream was a lie, a complete sham and the Vietnam War was proof of it.  

Although a looming paranoia lingers throughout the novel, contributed heavily to Thompson’s heavy drug use, the novel also works as a handbook for Thompson’s contempt of authority. A distrust of authority on every level was a common thread in all of Thompson’s writing. Thompson didn’t trust the government, especially the Republican’s or United States President, Richard Nixon. And he sure as hell didn’t trust the police, which is ironic, considering that Thompson ran for Sheriff of Pitkin County in Colorado in 1970. An article which focused on Thompson’s run for Sherriff was featured in issue # 67 of Rolling Stone Magazine titled; “The Battle of Aspen,” another issue of Rolling Stone Magazine sold through Mile High Vinyl. As you can already guess, Thompson didn’t become Sheriff, which may have been for the best considering the substantial body of work he was able to amass in the years which followed. 

“Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas” was adapted into a film starring Johnny Depp, who played Raoul Duke, in 1998. The film, directed by the inventive and brilliant Terry Gilliam, has since become a cult classic. Depp and Thompson also shared a friendship, which began in 1994, and lasted the remainder of Thompson’s life until he killed himself on February 20th, 2005 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  

Actually, it was Thompson whom Johnny Depp had to thank for the actor’s marriage to Amber Heard. The story goes that Johnny Depp was visiting Thompson’s house when he accidentally discovered a manuscript, written decades prior titled “The Rum Diary”. Depp then persuaded his friend to publish the novel, which Thompson did. And when the novel was eventually adapted into a film in 2011, Depp was cast to play Paul Kemp, as Amber Heard was cast to play none other than the role of his love interest, Chenault, which lead to one of the healthiest and happiest Hollywood marriages of recent years. That was an attempt at humor, in case you couldn’t identify the sarcasm hidden within that statement. 

What made “Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas” a personal pick for one of my top ten novels, was the style carried throughout Thompson’s writing. Every line of prose felt amplified. This may have been the drugs causing an almost steroid effect to the words on paper, or it may have just been the oddball character of Hunter S. Thompson and how he was able to effortlessly articulate ideas and provoke the reader to eat up the words on page. Every line pulled you in, and hearing the batshit crazy accounts of Raoul and his psychotic lawyer, Dr. Gonzo made for one hell of an entertaining read, and one I will be certain to revisit in the near future. 

“A Child Called It” by Dave Pelzer 

The journey through my personal top ten favorite novels is about to take a depressing turn. Although, reading Dave Pelzer’s horrifying first-hand account to surviving possibly one of the most severe cases of child abuse documented might be hard for many to read, it is nonetheless a story of endurance and survival I highly recommend. What makes this novel so astonishing and effective wasn’t Dave Pelzer’s writing style or choice in vocabulary, but rather, his ability to recount the most painful of horrors which no child should ever be forced to endure. Pelzer was physically, emotionally and psychologically abused by his alcoholic mother who singled out Pelzer, forcing him to eat his infant siblings soiled diapers, starving him for weeks at a time, burning him on the stove, beating him relentlessly, using psychological manipulation to make him believe he was deserving of the abuse, and the horrors continued for years until Pelzer was removed from his mother’s care and put into the foster care system.  

When I was twelve, my mother handed me the book, and within what felt like only a few hours, I had finished reading it from start to finish. To that point, I had never found myself so invested in a story. Throughout the duration of the novel, I wanted nothing more than to see Dave escape from the hell house his mother had created for him and his siblings. Through my own experiences, the realization came that those who torment others typically do so because of a profound suffering that is trapped within themselves. It has nothing to do with a victim instigating the reaction, and everything to do with the abuser being incapable or unwilling to introspectively look within themselves for the answers they seek to eradicate their own suffering. This doesn’t simply apply to the horrifying realities of childhood abuse, but rather, those who target others in every corner of life as their decided instruments of torment. Although, this doesn’t mean that every person who torments others does so to alleviate their own suffering, but rather that cycles of abuse often contain someone who was initially a victim morphing into the abuser.  

At the age of twelve, Dave had entered the foster care system, and grew up to become the best possible version of himself, with “A Child Called It” having sold over a million copies while becoming a New York Times Bestseller, despite Dave being the product of a childhood which may have sent stronger adults into a psychiatric ward. 

As I was growing up, and dealing with dysfunction which occurred within my family's household, Pelzer’s novel made me realize that any one of us can go through hell. However, it’s facing hell and coming out on top despite the pain you once faced which helps to build your character for the better.  

Reading "A Child Called It” helped in shaping me into the man I am today, and has ensured that my children will never exist in an atmosphere of hostility and abuse. As a result, my children are unique, confident and free to be themselves without judgement. Anyway, my apologies for drifting off topic. I highly recommend Dave Pelzer’s novel and guarantee it will be a valued read. 

"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” by Quentin Tarantino 

A lot of film lovers, including myself, have by now watched the film “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, written and directed by the genius, Quentin Tarantino. And being that Tarantino, who dropped out of high school at fifteen, has a reported IQ of 180 (higher than Albert Einstein) I don’t think I’m incorrect in my assertion of him being a genius.  

Anyway, a lot of us have watched the film. The novel of the same name, which was published in 2021 (Tarantino’s first novel to date), was a pop culture enthusiasts wet dream. And avoided becoming the typical carbon copy novel of the film by an author just trying to make a quick buck. If anything, the novel furthered the “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” universe. This was done through the inclusion of chapters which weren’t depicted in the film, such as a chapter which took place aboard a boat which answered the question of whether or not Cliff Booth had actually murdered his wife (he did). The novel also featured a more thorough examination of Charles Manson and the Manson Family, which delved into Manson’s association with Dennis Wilson and Terry Melcher, while refusing to depict Manson as being anything other than the quivering, miniscule, manipulative coward that he was.  

My personal favorite portion of the novel was a series of chapters which depicted Cliff Booth’s illusive past, where, from his time as a combat soldier during the second world war, he killed dozens of enemy soldiers. As well as a satisfying chapter which depicted how Cliff came to own his beloved pitbull, Brandy, who both Cliff and his friend, Buster, would bring to dog fights, where she would tear apart the competition, quite literally. The chapter ended with Buster attempting to persuade Cliff to force an injured Brandy into a final dog fight which both men knew would kill her, while placing bets on the competition. Cliff, in short, chose Brandy over his friendship, which meant a brutal end for Buster. 

Tarantino also did a masterful job of explaining the mythology behind the golden age of Hollywood, as well as the aftermath of Rick and Cliff murdering three members of the Manson Family after they had broken into Rick’s mansion. This included Rick experiencing a revitalized acting career for a brief period, as well as his struggles with alcoholism and bipolar disorder. Tarantino also managed to successfully write both himself and his stepfather, Curt Zastoupil, into the novel, where Rick Dalton autographs a napkin addressed to “Quentin” after Curt had performed a few songs for Rick in a bar. Although in the hands of another author, the self-inclusion may have been perceived as egotistical, but in the hands of Tarantino, it managed to tie together well.  

The mythology of Hollywood and how Tarantino managed to effortlessly intertwine fictional characters within real world Tinseltown was simply masterful. Tarantino’s novel, in my opinion, was superior to the film and showcases that no matter the medium, Tarantino’s mastery will shine.  

Although, Tarantino is still a horrible actor. Really bad. Not quite Seth MacFarlane in “A Million Ways to Die in the West” bad, which was absolutely painful to sit through, but he’s still bad. Tarantino’s writing, both through screenwriting and prose, are second to none. If you get a chance, I highly recommend giving “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” a read. You won’t regret it.  

“Inherent Vice” by Thomas Pynchon 

When it comes to reclusive authors, Thomas Pynchon makes the now deceased J.D. Salinger look like a pitiful amateur. No one knows what the guy looks like, other than a few dated pictures of him from decades ago which have been circulating online for years, and Pynchon has never done an interview. With that said, Thomas Pynchon is one of the most talented writers of his time, with intelligence which bleeds onto every page, compelling the reader to eat up every word, like the literary equivalent of consuming a Kobe steak. My apologies to all the vegans currently reading this, but I love myself a juicy steak and realize the dire circumstances which unfold in order for that steak to reach my plate. Steak is fucking delicious. I’m getting hungry just writing about it... Fuck it, I’m getting something to eat. I’ll be right back. 

I’m back. It wasn’t a steak, but it did the trick. Anyway, the first novel written by Pynchon was “V.”, which was published in 1963 when the author was only twenty-six years old. I never read the novel personally, but did read his follow-up novel, “The Crying of Lot 49” which was an intriguing read. This inspired me to head to the local book store and pick up a copy of “Inherent Vice”, which at that point, had been the most recent novel Pynchon had written, published in 2009. From the first page, I couldn’t put the fucking novel down.  

Based in 1970 Los Angeles, the novel told the story of Larry “Doc” Sportello, a private detective, who is hired by an ex-girlfriend, Shasta Hepworth, to investigate a potential scheme hatched by the ex-wife of her current boyfriend, “Mickey” Wolfmann, who was apparently attempting to have Mickey committed to a mental hospital. That’s a bit to take in. Along the way, there are dozens of side-plots, which are interwoven within the main plot, and a wide selection of central and supporting characters. More characters than I have the patience or attention span to mention here.   

One thing which made the novel such a profound read was Pynchon’s ability to give the novel a pulse. Think of a novel you despise. Did one come to mind? Okay, now why did you despise the novel? Perhaps it was too long, such as a pretentious piece-of-shit like “War and Peace” which would take the average person forty years of their life to read from start to finish. That may have been an exaggeration, but not much of one.  

Or maybe, the novel you despise contained lifeless characters you had difficulty empathizing with or relating to. Possibly even a bland story which makes Sunday church service feel like a roller-coaster ride. The point I’m getting at is that no matter the novel, if the author fails to inject substance and style within their writing, then their writing will only succeed in boring the audience to a quiet whimper or suicide.  

Pynchon also did a fantastic job of injecting current events of the era into the novel. Hazy thoughts on The Manson Family trial, politics, Vietnam, hippies, drug use ("Doc” loves himself some Mary Jane), racism, feminism... aids in creating a realistic, relatable world which felt authentic to the early seventies. Pynchon’s characters also have an other-worldly level of intelligence and knowledge of pop culture which the generally dim-witted populous may lack. For some, the injections of pop culture may have been too much, but for a pop culture junkie like me, they were just right.  

One of my favorite film directors, Paul Thomas Anderson, adapted "Inherent Vice” into a feature film of the same name in 2014. To date, this was the only novel written by Thomas Pynchon to have been adapted into a film. The movie itself got mixed reviews, mostly due to a plot which was jumping off the walls with more subsequent subplots than the average movie viewer could even attempt to keep up with. I have to agree, the film was heavy. The novel was also heavy, but the novel succeeded on almost all levels. The reason for the film’s failure, even in the hands of a filmmaker as talented as PTA, may have been due to the novel being unadaptable based solely on the fact that Pynchon never wrote “Inherent Vice”, or any of his novels with the intention of there one day being a film adaptation. This isn’t a detractor to Pynchon’s abilities, but rather the opposite. In order for Thomas Pynchon’s novels to be adaptable into feature films, the characters and story would need to be dumbed down substantially, which would lose the admiration and attention of those who gravitate toward Pynchon’s writing in the first place. One thing the film adaptation of “Inherent Vice” did have was one hell of a soundtrack, which I may write into a top ten soundtrack blog in the near future. 

Luckily, at eighty-five years young, we still have the talented Thomas Pynchon to entertain us with his writing. Unfortunately, none of us know what the guy looks like. Perhaps that’s Pynchon’s intent. To become one of the greatest living American writers, without having to deal with the irritating cesspool of everyday society seeking him out for answers that he doesn’t have and which they wouldn’t listen to even if he did. Afterall, ignorance is bliss. 

“Women” by Charles Bukowski 

I know what you must be thinking;  

“Didn’t this guy mention a novel by Charles Bukowski in part one of this blog? He must not know a damn thing about literature!” 

Yes, I did already mention a novel by Bukowski in part one. And yes, more than one of Bukowski’s novel’s I consider as being among my favorite. “Ham on Rye” was fucking hilarious and is hands down my favorite novel by any author. “Women” was also a great novel. Not Bukowski’s best work, but easily top three, depending on who you ask. For myself, it takes the second spot.  

As the title implies, the novel does contain women, and being that it was written by Bukowski, it contains a substantial amount of sex. Now Bukowski loved women and enjoyed sex, although if you asked him, Bukowski would have likely told you that he enjoyed drinking and writing more. To each their own. Following the success of his first novel, “Post Office”, Bukowski became something of a cult icon and found himself receiving a ton of female attention. More so than he had received prior to his new found fame. The novel started with the opening line; 

“I was fifty years old, and hadn’t been to bed with a woman for four years.” 

For those who are familiar with Bukowski’s writing, this is an almost unbelievable admittance, considering that Bukowski wrote nearly endlessly from the age of thirty-five onward, at a time when he possibly wrote more poetry than any other writer on Earth, and had always made certain to include his sexual conquests within his poems and prose.  

What made Bukowski’s writing stand out from other authors was his honesty. Sometimes the guy was too honest, which resulted in an intensified level of humor, most often at his own expense. The novel followed Bukowski through a roughly eight-year period as he detailed his sexual encounters with the countless women he came across. In Bukowski’s own words, this period was his research.  

The detailed sexual encounters weren’t primarily one-night stands or hook-ups. In some cases, Bukowski had lengthy relationships with the many women featured within the novel. Of course, being that this is a Bukowski novel, the writer used the name of his alter ego, Henry Chinaski, and changed the names of all of the characters depicted within the novel. This was likely done so Bukowski could save himself from facing potential lawsuits from pissed ex-girlfriends who didn’t want their private lives showcased to the world within his writing. I can’t say that I would blame them after reading the often-embarrassing instances which transpired. 

Although Bukowski had his share of criticism following the publication of “Women”, primarily from feminists and critics who had deemed Bukowski’s writing as being sexist and described Bukowski as being a disgusting pig, I feel his novel did a thorough job of describing the often-complicated sexual relationships between men and women and how we navigate the lives in which we live. Throughout the novel, Bukowski talked about his viewpoints on sex, on women, on life, aimlessness, how people cling onto the most useless of ideas and how they consistently fight back against the inevitability of death. He also spoke heavily about his love of drinking. The following is among my favorite lines from the novel; 

“That's the problem with drinking, I thought, as I poured myself a drink. If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen.” 

It’s a line I can’t personally relate to these days, due to it being nearly a decade since I was last drawn into having a taste for alcohol. But for the instances in which I did drink, the line by Bukowski made perfect sense, as alcohol is the ultimate elixir of both pain and pleasure.  

Within the novel, Bukowski’s poetic prose, which reads like music from the Gods, caused an almost hypnosis the first time I read the novel in 2013. Since that time, I have read the novel three additional times. The only novel I have read more is “Ham on Rye”, which I find myself reading a minimum of once a year. That is precisely why “Women” by Bukowski has found a place on the list; due to the repeat reads which makes the book standout among many others.  

Bukowski passed away on March 9th 1994, at the age of 73, with the love of his life, Linda Lee Bukowski, whose likeness was featured within “Women”, by his side. Since his death, unreleased posthumous writing by Bukowski continues to get published through “Black Sparrow Press” almost yearly, an astronomical feat for any writer, especially a writer who has been dead for nearly thirty years. For a man who despised humanity, it comes as a surprise how much of an inspiration Bukowski has been to so many aspiring writers and readers throughout the world. And I have no doubt that his writing will live on for generations to come.  


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