When I first read Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Raoul Duke and his attorney’s search for the American Dream riveted me; however, I quickly began asking questions about the location of this search. Did it need to take place in Vegas? If not Vegas, where else might the American Dream appear so corrupted and derelict? Then, one day while I was in college and had returned for Thanksgiving Break, I realized that my “hometown” (I use this word hesitatingly because it isn’t much of a town at all. It’s more of a collection of houses that lay to the south of Denver) was the result of the very same search, and, (not so) shockingly, when one looks one sees that the American Dream is warped there as well.
Despite the misleading dissimilarities between the lights of Vegas in the 60’s and a Californian style suburb that began in the 80’s, Highlands Ranch, Colorado is what Vegas would look like if you replaced the casinos, gambling, and “millions of colored balls running around a very complicated track, strange symbols & filigree, giving off a loud hum” (27) with thousands of homes all based off of the same handful of floor plans (National Geographic once featured it as an example of suburban sprawl), pastel colors, and a fierce case of “keeping up with the Joneses.” While the way in which these two communities express their overindulgences are different, they are both points along the same axis of excess.
Because I am discussing a Thompson work, I feel I must quickly address his use of drugs as a tool to create confusion and “fear and loathing.” His characters’ constant consumption of illegal substances add to the disorientating nature of Vegas, and I argue that while drugs could be read as the main subject of his novel, they are simply a means to heighten the outlandish weirdness his characters encounter in the cityscape. While grass, mescaline, blotter acid, cocaine, “uppers, downers, screamers, [and] laughers” (4) are not the main motivating force of life in Highlands Ranch, I find that the overriding ideology is made up of something equally exhilarating and disorienting: consumerism. If Vegas’ depravity is the death of the American Dream, Highlands Ranch’s addiction to consumerism is its zombified resurrection.
To understand the philosophical core (and thus how the American Dream is corrupted and/or absent) in both Thompson’s Vegas and the Highlands Ranch of my youth, let us start with a search for the “ideological” apex of each. Both are filled with surreal spectacles: Thompson’s Vegas has drug induced delirium. Duke exclaims, “Here I am sitting out here alone on this fucking desert, in this nest of armed loonies, with a very dangerous carload of hazards, horrors and liabilities that I must get back to L.A. Because if they nail me out here, I’m doomed” (71). Highlands Ranch has fully-paved, six-lane roads leading into the middle of cow fields where they dead-end at the skeleton-work of planned, but not built, subdivisions (complete with cul-de-sacs, stop signs, power boxes, and street lights, but not a house in sight).
My friends and I used to force our cars into high speed doughnuts along these empty, icy roads until our engines overheated much the same way that Duke and his Attorney terrorize the Strip, “the Ford bolted off like a rocket. I stomped on the accelerator and stayed right next to them for about two hundred yards” (152). While there wasn’t any reason for either of our parties’ actions, we were all “watching for cops in the mirror” (152) while our friends “kept screaming” out the window.
However, these empty cul-de-sacs are at the fringe of Highlands Ranch, while the Strip is a center, but isn’t the center. Duke and his attorney think they find the center of Vegas at the Circus Circus Casino, a space where, “right above the gambling tables the Forty Flying Carazito Brothers are doing a high-wire trapeze act, along with four muzzled Wolverines and the Six Nymphet Sisters from San Diego” (46). More importantly, they find what they believe to be the American Dream, “’We’re right in the vortex’… ‘You must realize,’ I said, ‘we’ve found the main nerve” (48).
However, this “main nerve” contains nothing but some inebriated, paranoid conversation, two women “fucking a polar bear,” and a rotating bar (48). There isn’t any revelation or even further discussion of the matter. In fact, the mere thought of being so close to the American Dream gives the attorney “the fear” (48). The characters realize that this is not the American Dream because they continue to search for it for the rest of the novel, but this is the only time they claim to find it.
While Thompson gives his characters a (mistaken) feeling that they’ve discovered the center, one may not be so (un?)fortunate to think that he has discovered one in Highlands Ranch. Can there be a center to a suburb preplanned ten years in advance? It can have a middle (a physical location between all of it), but this is no more the center than Duke’s mistaking Circus Circus to be the center.
Can conformity have a center? Or is the whole suburb only an endlessly reoccurring pattern like the carpet in a Vegas casino? The repetition in Highlands Ranch is dazzling, from the floor plans of each house, to the small yards, to the small trees, to the HMO’s. Even the street names are recycled, so that to navigate you need to know that you are looking for Meadow Lark Circle, not Meadow Lark Place, Street, Corner, Lane, etc. How disorientating is it to try to pick up a date on a Friday night at 321 Bentwood Circle only to have a ex-flame from the 7th grade answer the door and realize after the most hellishly awkward of conversations you were really looking for 321 Bentwood Court.
If there is a center to Highlands Ranch, it’s Park Meadows mall (which is, oddly enough, located in the neighboring city of Lone Tree [HR doesn’t even own its own center!]) Inside, you’ll find something far more vicious than Thompson’s Vegas. This place is drenched with a near crippling consumerism. You can valet you car at the food court. Tee-shirts are priced because of their label while quality is completely inverted (it costs more because it is ripped). The mall originally declined to have its own light rail stop, which can only be read as, if you can’t afford drive here, you can’t afford to shop here. If Circus Circus gave the attorney “the fear,” perhaps this (sub)urban space would push him over the edge.
If Circus Circus is the closest Duke comes to finding a center in Las Vegas, to finding the American Dream, Park Meadows Mall is the closest one will come to finding the American Dream in Highlands Ranch, and neither are a pretty sight. Duke watches in horror as the people in a casino turn to lizards “Terrible things were happening all around us. Right next to me a huge reptile was gnawing on a woman’s neck, the carpet was a blood-soaked sponge” (24) but in Park Meadows a drug addled mind would be lucky to hallucinate about reptiles, instead shoppers would most likely morph into plastic Gap (or for those who have a different style, Abercrombie and Finch) mannequins.
Just as Duke and his attorney are unable to locate the American Dream in Vegas, one cannot locate it in Highlands Ranch, despite the initial outward appearance that such a suburb is, in fact, a product of the American Dream. When these locations are placed next to each other, we can see that both contain a similar depravity and decadence.