Everybody thinks they know Hunter S. Thompson, and sure, to some degree they do. He was a wild man whose orbit was a cyclone of drugs, guns, and motorcycles that he occasionally justified through the pursuit of journalistic projects. He is the most famous character ever produced by Rolling Stone. His heyday was in the ’70s and then his addictions got the better of him, so that he deteriorated to the point of taking his own life in 2005. Oh, there were also weirdly monstrous ink drawings for a lot of his best work because he sucked the hapless illustrator, Ralph Steadman, into his vortex. Unfortunately, Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, may be all some may know about Thompson. For those readers, and for those who understand that Thompson gave everything to his work—there’s the terrifically redemptive new biography by Timothy Denevi, Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson’s Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism.
Denevi’s argument is Thompson became the gonzo character he was because it served his work—and actually, his work was not journalism, it was fighting fascism. Journalism was a means to the end, as was the bad boy character he constructed for himself that gave him greater access to sources for his journalism. Without the bad boy, there’s no Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (Modern Library, 1999). Without the Hell’s Angels book, there’s no steady Rolling Stone gig. Without the magazine footing the bill and enabling the antics, we wouldn’t have the Nixon chronicles. Even those who want to credit Thompson with proper journalistic sensibility generally don’t make it past the beauty and glory of his bottomless efforts to dislodge Nixon, because it can be hard to locate the fascism that presidents have in common with biker gangs or with genteel crowds at the Kentucky Derby.
Thompson, however, could see the similarities. He fought all three of those kinds of fascists and many more. We often view illustrator Steadman as a sort of sidekick and accomplice, or perhaps even as Thompson’s babysitter, for the most well-known aspects of his coverage. Denevi’s biography therefore doesn’t tread any well-worn terrain, and actually barely mentions Stedman at all. Stedman arrived after Thompson’s anti-fascist ideology was already well-formed. How did it form? This is a much deeper, dearer question, and Freak Kingdom provides an answer by way of its portrayal of Thompson’s friendship to Oscar Acosta, the attorney also better known as Dr. Gonzo from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Acosta’s story easily stands alone as a worthy read—and it’s never been properly concluded. He disappeared in Mexico in 1974 and is presumed dead, but while he was alive, he was a fierce and fiery advocate for the Chicano Movement in East Los Angeles. Thompson covered him for Rolling Stone in “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan” (29 April 1971), but Acosta proved to be a major influence on Thompson’s ways of thinking long before that one piece came to fruition. Also given ample detailing is Dr. Bob Geiger, the man best known for being first to give Thompson speed, who nevertheless can be said to have done the most to help him learn to act like an adult. Denevi’s extensive consideration of the role these two men played in Thompson’s psychological and moral development is a substantive, efficacious remedy to the silly notion that Thompson simply sprung up as gonzo from day one.
Another perception problem solved by Denevi’s good work is the idea that Thompson was all journalistic talky-talk with no real anti-fascist action. Freak Kingdom includes a pretty solid chapter on the “Thompson for Sheriff” campaign he ran in Pitkin County, Colorado, in 1970. His “freak power” platform was not a gimmick for a story. It was his most cohesive and serious articulation of ideology up to that point. I wish this chapter were longer. There’s a strong effort to trace why he ran for office and some detailing of the other players and how he fared. What’s lacking from this book—and every other on the subject—is a thorough debriefing. Thompson lost the election 173 votes to 204. He wrote a little about it before and during, but almost nothing about it afterward.
Nixon had been in office for a year when Thompson ran for sheriff. Then he covered what Acosta was doing before settling back into direct confrontation with his Nixonian demons in reportage on the Democratic presidential primary campaigns of 1972. Thompson had run for office, then boosted the public’s awareness of a revolutionary outlaw, then boosted McGovern. Look at him vacillating between a cynic’s desperation and an optimist’s mainstreaming. What did he truly learn from his brief foray into Aspen’s machine? People often think Nixon is Thompson’s touchstone, but Nixon was just the primary target. Nixon’s two runs are bookends to Thompson’s own run, and there’s more to be excavated in debriefing from the Battle of Aspen.
Denevi, however, has a different fish to fry—and he fries it expertly. To be blunt: this is the first book about Thompson to be written during the Trump presidency, and though there are many books trying to explain Trump in light of Nixon, Denevi is perhaps the only guy out here trying to explain Nixon in light of Trump. I often think about how badly we could use a Second Coming of Hunter S. Thompson in coverage on the Age of Trump. Denevi is deftly working on a suspicious tone, an uncanny mood, and cherrypicking Thompson anecdotes that will offer the most resonance with our current predicament. It’s a very satisfying approach to rewriting this particular villain of history.
Further, the author’s style plunges willingly into a kind of novelization of Thompson’s life. He bothers to set the scenes, just as Thompson did. There’s a paragraph about the Polo Lounge and another about the pool at the Watergate that are still rattling around in my head two weeks after reading. And there’s some killer irony here, as Denevi does unto Thompson what Thompson usually did unto others.
“On the patio they were shown a table near the palm trees. They ordered gin cocktails — Singapore Slings — with mescal on the side. They ordered coffee. They ordered beer and extra ice. Rolling Stone would cover the expenses, Thompson insisted, once the article was finished. After a while a grand piano struck up. The wind caught in the high green sails of the palms. Along the flowered terraces of the patio section the sense of privacy was immense. No one at the Polo Lounge wanted to be overheard…” (177)
The result is swift and clear—Denevi gives a charmingly sensational account of Thompson’s life in order to prove his point that Thompson actually conducted himself as quite a serious person. Though his means were often viciously comic and terrifyingly chaotic, Freak Kingdom argues that these anti-fascist ends perhaps justified them. Thompson gave his life to this work. It wasn’t one long party, but one long-distance ride of sacrifice that occasionally spun out on its driver. Freak Kingdom tackles that big idea without ever spinning out itself.