Hunter Thompson's The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved is a favorite of mine because it breaks the perceived promise that we readers think that it makes to us: It is a piece of writing about the Kentucky Derby, which is ostensibly an event about horses, so we readers assume that we're going to get something about horses. However, as anyone that has read the piece will observe, there is virtually no treatment of the equine in the essay – it is essentially an account that we assume is supposed to be about horses, but then betrays itself as a piece about the depravity wrought by the Kentucky Derby's spectators (those observing the horses), then transforms again into a piece about the depravity of the author and his illustrator, Ralph Steadman (those observing the spectators). The work betrays the trust of the reader twice, and yet it is still so lovable and strangely scary that I can't help but feel immense respect and gratitude for it just existing.
I think horses are pretty scary, but I'm not actually afraid of them. They are scary only in the hypothetical sense, not the autonomic or mechanical sense. When I see a live horse, I do not get sweaty palms or suffer from an increased heart rate, I do not feel anxiety or the fight-or-flight response. I do not feel fear when I see a horse – my fear of horses should be about horses – but it isn't: my fear of horses is built of associations that I make with horses. My fear of horses isn't really a fear or a phobia at all, it is a house-of-cards-like construction that hijacks my mind every time I see a living horse; it is a sensation that I can only call fear because that is the closest thing to it that I know. The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved is dragged off course, too: it is afraid of people, and Thompson is afraid of himself, of his own reflection in the mirror. The essay is hijacked away from the treatment of horses and toward the treatment of human revelry taken to an unhealthy extreme. Maybe something is just broken in my fear response: a dog bit off a part of my upper lip when I was four years old, and now whenever I see a dog attacking a person on TV or in film, I can't help but give myself over to hysterical laughter.
The first time I read Decadent and Depraved, something that really surprised me was how good Thompson is at shifting the weirdness of the other outward from himself: first Thompson himself is the other, a former Kentuckian who doesn't remember what is considered a proper drink to order during the Derby; then Steadman is othered, a Londoner totally out of his element on his first trip to the United States; soon the race horses are the other, a bunch of strange four-legged beasts vastly outnumbered by the bipeds crushing each other to watch the race; until eventually the mantle of the other lands on the shoulders of the reader, as Thompson literally kicks us out of the essay with a nonchalant foot to the seat of the pants: “If I weren’t sick I’d kick your ass all the way to Bowling Green..."
Five things that are scary about horses:
- Horses have huge, uncannily human-looking eyes with dainty eyelashes. These eyes are at once alert and intelligent and manic, giving the horse the appearance of a dangerously brilliant lunatic.
- The teeth of a horse are menacing because they seem unsettlingly human which, as above, gives them the look of some sort of nightmarish mutant with a huge mouth. The horse's teeth must also be filed down by means of a special set of files, and the idea of having my teeth filed ranks in my mind amongst the most grievously savage forms of torture.
- Getting trampled/kicked/etc. by a horse would be the worst injury. Horses are very heavy and their feet are adorned with tempered metal. Whenever I see a horseshoe hanging on a wall, I don't think about good luck, instead I think about what it would be like if a horse stepped on my foot.
- Horses have enormous ears, which for me bring to mind the ears of a German Shepard, the most powerful breed of military attack dog. If a horse could be trained to kill, it could only be stopped by massive application of force beyond the means of a thin individual such as myself.
- I can't outrun a horse.
Ultimately, Thompson talks about horses at length only twice in the work, once to compare the looming dangers of inbreeding horses with the present dangers of inbreeding amongst "a narrow Southern society" as he calls it, and again to discuss the results of the Kentucky Derby, remarking that the victor, a stallion named Dust Commander, cost his owner only $6,500 and won $127,000.
In the blink of an eye the horse can become a live wire on a tear, trampling, screaming, and in many ways just as scared as I am – a force of nature, practically as unthinking as a landslide once panicked. My fear must be a kind of respect, the same respect that I feel for soldiers of fortune and high-current electrical cables. I know they're dangerous but harmless when handled properly, and that is what instills the fear. I know that I should be afraid of the horse but I am not.
Parke Cooper is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Arizona.