Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson’s Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism
by Timothy Denevi
PublicAffairs, 416 pp., $18.30
On a cloudy Tuesday afternoon I found myself by a train station in Santa Monica ordering an Uber ride. To ride the train through the bowels of the city can be a daily reminder that quite a sector of our civilization has gone completely insane, but the Uber ride itself put the icing on the cake and confirmed this dark suspicion. The driver, who shall remain unnamed, was a jolly type with a curious name. I have a bad habit of getting easily into conversation with any human who crosses my path and asked where the driver hailed from. Poland was the answer. Ah yes, Poland. I mentioned that Poland has been undergoing quite the political sea change, using those words as to not say the current government as right-wing and nationalist. This was my second mistake. The driver quickly announced himself as a partisan of the ruling Law and Justice Party (what a shudder to even type such a name) because, hey, they were getting rid of “the Communists still left over from the past,” who are inevitably “controlled by the Jews.”
The red light began flashing in my brain, for I was trapped in an Uber with a certified Fascist. It is common to slam partisans of the current president, for example, as certifiable fucks, but here was a card-carrying, full-throated fuck steering me towards a meeting with a fellow wordsmith living in Marina Del Rey. I attempted to offer a retort and explained that most of the old Commissars were now cheerful capitalists, and that claiming they were controlled “by the Jews” was simply irrational. “NO!” He protested. In his hallucinatory view of the world there was a plan to bring boat-loads of Jews back from Israel to repopulate Eastern Europe. I demanded to know where there was any possible proof of such a deranged scheme. “THE INTERNET,” he shouted. The Internet, that all powerful cyber-feeder of cultural dementia. I demanded to be let out of the car a few blocks ahead of my destination and left without offering a goodbye or a tip. The book I was carrying in my hand suddenly made complete, crystalline sense. It was Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson’s Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism. Recently published, it is a vital literary history of our emerging sociopolitical nightmare.
Timothy Denevi, a writer and assistant professor at George Mason University, accomplishes two great feats with this highly engaging book. First, he writes in a style that dismisses dry, academic jargon and vividly brings Hunter S. Thompson to wicked life. Second — and most importantly — he recovers Thompson as one of the key political essayists of our time. Even before Thompson passed away in 2005, his place in popular culture had been assured, but more as a kind of literary Jim Morrison. The well-known binge-drinking and drug experimentation (and later dependence on cocaine), coupled with his colorful TV appearances, resulted in the party animal overtaking the writer. “Gonzo Journalism,” as pioneered by Thompson, inspires images of debauchery while holding a notepad. Many younger fans have come to Thompson via Terry Gilliam’s 1998 trippy, cult adaptation of his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, starring Johnny Depp as the author himself. The fact that Thompson’s will called for his ashes to be fired from a cannon (a wish granted by Depp) only added to the mystique. But what emerges in Freak Kingdom is a brilliant wordsmith who was not only attuned to his times but was years and even decades ahead of those times as well. Beginning with his reporting on the Hell’s Angels biker gang and its tribal culture, through the chaos of the 1960s and the rise of Richard Nixon, Thompson’s journey into the dark heart of Americana is urgent in how it never feels far off. Instead, there is the feeling that he is reporting from the opening stages of what is in toxic bloom today.
The book opens on that seminal date in recent American history, November 22, 1963. Thompson is a 26-year-old journalist living in Woody Creek Road, just outside of Aspen, Colorado with his wife Sandy, who is six months pregnant. A neighbor knocks at the door and informs Thompson that President John F. Kennedy has been shot in Dallas. For Thompson the fatal bullet that shattered Kennedy’s skull carried with it the germ for a coming breakdown of the American system. With the accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, turning out to be a self-described Marxist, Thompson goes to bed terrified that war with Cuba or another Soviet ally would follow. “This is what he imagined. A deluge of human barbarity would swirl and descend and dirty itself in endless succession. At last, the worst aspects of mankind were coming together to submerge the very best of us all. There was nowhere to hide, let alone run,” writes Denevi. Thompson’s great fear would be that American voters, hungry for vengeance, would elect the insurgent Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater in the upcoming 1964 elections. One word defined the crisis for Thompson, shitrain.
Now a distant, almost forgotten name in the annals of our imperial history, Barry Goldwater in Freak Kingdom becomes the first real forewarning for Thompson of an emerging form of American fascism. Denevi chronicles Thompson’s first major political event as a reporter for the National Observer, the July 1964 Republican Convention in San Francisco. With a visceral tone, Denevi describes Thompson in terrified awe as delegates dismiss Dwight D. Eisenhower as a has been and worship Goldwater’s stances which include a first strike nuclear option regarding Russia, the possible invasion of Cuba, rabid appeals to the working poor decorated with nationalist slogans such as, “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” Norman Mailer covered the same convention for Harper’s. The resulting essay, In the Red Light: A History of the Republican Convention in 1964, ends with a quote I feel still resounds today: “The wars are coming and the deep revolutions of the soul.” Denevi includes a quote from a letter Thompson wrote afterwards, “And I was thinking, God damn you Nazi bastards. I really hope you win it, because letting your kind of human garbage flood the system is about the only way to really clean it out.” Yet the United States did not quite have the fever yet for such dark populism, and Lyndon B. Johnson would win the election, then slide further into that conflict that would define the era, Vietnam.
But the 1960s truly begin for Thompson when he rides with the Hell’s Angels. Denevi frames what began as a single article assignment for The Nation as the pivotal gateway for Thompson into both serious cultural commentary and a dependence on Dexedrine. Denevi’s portrait of Thompson is always exhilarating, profiling the writer as a naturally born wordsmith. Not the product of any fancy schooling, Thompson just always had it in him. Practice of course hones the craft, but Thompson always felt he got lucky because he really had no clue how to do anything else. To our benefit, the master’s talent did not lead him to write quick bestsellers, instead he was also granted a keen eye for a rapidly changing world.
If Thompson’s 1965 masterpiece of journalistic adventurism, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, carries with it a romantic allure of the outlaw writer, Denevi reminds us that Thompson’s actual observations were politically quite dark. In the Angel’s tribal existence outside of society, living by a code where violence always hung as a threat, there was a prototype for a neo-fascist organization. “In the end Thompson sought to portray the Angels within a wider postwar context: how their sudden popularity was really just another manifestation of what happens when a nation like America limits economic and cultural mobility for entire groups of people.” Mostly working class or poor, fueling their rages with reactionary views, Thompson almost seems to view the Angels as an American phenomenon with the potential of becoming future Black Shirts. This is the future of the proletariat without revolutionary options. There’s a hallucinatory and strangely disturbing section where Thompson attends a “happening” hosted by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey, then a mere 29-years-old, where the Hell’s Angels were invited as new countercultural comrades. Amid the acid and drinking, Thompson senses something malignant in the air and indeed, he witnesses an orgy turned gang rape involving the Angels that Denevi describes with Orwellian prose, “As always their power resided in their numbers: a physical manifestation of the worst sort of mob.” Thompson’s fears would fully manifest in two later incidents — an anti-war protest at Berkley involving Kesey and the bohemian group The Merry Pranksters, where the Hell’s Angels were invited to join only to then turn on the protesters and help the police beat them down. Beneath the dark leather and cool rides hid nationalist authoritarians. Thompson was never fooled however, and Denevi makes it clear this was an incredibly independent and lucid mind. But many of the gurus of popular culture would take longer to sober up and the romanticized gaze at the Hell’s Angels would end in bloodshed during the notorious 1969 Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. Recently in Brazil such testosterone-pumped groups and clubs could be seen in the streets marching in support of president-elect Jair Bolsonaro, a quite literal neo-fascist who adores the military regime of the 60s through the 80s.
The rest of the decade becomes a whirlwind for Thompson as he finds fame, yet struggles to keep a steady cash flow going, resulting in more drug abuse to churn out massive amounts of material for various publications. But Denevi doesn’t see Thompson as a junkie, but as a writer driven to maximum extremes, both physically and mentally, to dive into what he perceived to be the growing darkness in the American system. He writes an unsent letter to Lyndon Johnson denouncing the Vietnam war as a venture as foolish as the Nazi invasion of Europe, he writes blistering pieces such as The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved (one of my favorites), where the howling, perspiring denizens decked in fancy wear represent the rotten core of the American ruling class, the kind of class Thompson saw as the egg hatching the ultimate villain, Richard Nixon. Thompson lands in Los Angeles to cover the violence and rage of the Chicano struggles and feels the danger when journalist Ruben Salazar is mysteriously killed by the LAPD during a riot. Thompson himself ran for mayor of Aspen, Colorado, under the “Freak Power” ticket, and Denevi turns this fascinating story into a powerful political lesson as saboteurs disguised as neo-Nazi bikers are sent into town to prevent the author from winning.
Denevi brings to life Thompson’s friendship with lawyer turned radical Oscar Acosta, who as the book progresses becomes a symbol for the 60s idealist who spirals away from the system, lured in by the promise of redemption through violence. Acosta would travel with Thompson to Las Vegas and party hard, yet as Denevi makes clear, Thompson was always the more level-headed of the two. He felt the best way to fight fascism was to expose it, to make others read about what was happening, whereas Acosta would lose himself in a guerrilla fantasy. The lawyer would soon carry weapons along with legal briefs, and while Thompson did love firearms, we sense he knew Acosta was chasing dangerous shadows, convincing himself of the futile efforts of attempting guerrilla war within the imperium that is the United States. Their friendship would soon strain due to Acosta’s money problems resulting from his political activities and battles, and his belief that Thompson betrayed him by changing his alter ego in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas into a Samoan. Yet Denevi does a great service in this section by presenting that gloriously wild book not as an LSD artifact, but as a surreal vision of Vegas as the ultimate expression of the jaded American soul, lost in its own money-coated dreams, embodying a philosophy preparing to unleash a specter like Donald Trump at us.
The book’s most harrowing chapter deals with Thompson’s coverage of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, months after the assassination of Robert Kennedy again put a fear of social collapse in Thompson. Under the gangland order of Mayor Richard Daley, a police state is imposed as Thompson is a witness to the savage assault by the police on protesters, with Denevi describing in brutal detail the broken teeth and beatings. In this age of social media is astounding to read about how such a thing was possible as the press were blocked and Daley was aware by the time news footage was developed the convention would be well under way. In Thompson’s eyes this was a vision into the future of an American police state, where those in power would exercise force without restraint to crush dissent.
Nixon of course would win, and it would be the later 1972 election where Thompson becomes a real political correspondent on the campaign trail. Forget the kind of stuffy, bland copy that passes for political commentary these days, the masterpiece of campaign reporting remains Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. The only recent book that comes closest (and believe me dear reader, I have read them all) is Matt Taibbi’s Insane Clown President, a timeless chronicle of what it was like to witness the ascendance of Trump in that crazed year of 2016. Denevi does something fresh and avoids painting Thompson as his stereotypical self- drinking hard and being a loose cannon. Instead the context here is that Thompson’s coverage serves as a harbinger of a new and disturbing political era. He bumps into right-wing figures that would later become prominent, like Pat Buchanan, and we should thank the gods Rolling Stone allowed him to cover the proceedings with a total, biased angle, rooting for George McGovern while lambasting Nixon as a hyena. Some of the well-known antics are still here, including Thompson’s infamous claims that candidate Ed Muskie was on a mysterious substance, Iboga. But the heart of the narrative is the system falling apart. How ahead of his time was Thompson? Consider this quote Denevi uses about Nixon, which could easily apply to our current blonde emperor, “The whole framework of the presidency is getting out of hand. It’s come to the point where you almost can’t run unless you can cause people to salivate and whip on each other with big sticks.”
Watergate would bring down the werewolf president, but for Thompson America emerged scathed, as did he. Cocaine would become his potent new fuel to continue working as the passion faded, Sandy would eventually leave him. Denevi’s portrait becomes a kind of tragic sacrifice to the art. The man burned himself out but what startling prose he left behind about us as a country. Freak Kingdom celebrates the writer as a figure of special gifts, able to turn what we can only sense into words. In this book political conventions become terrifying examples of the herd worshipping false idols, America a breeding ground for dangerous nationalist passions threatening to consume us all. Thompson’s prose, eloquently manic, was needed then and is needed now. Mothers and their children face tear gas by the fortress walls of our border, the president pretends to be deaf and blind to the changing climate, mad men rule the east and western hemispheres, rumors of war abound, the Uber driver is a fascist. Hunter S. Thompson would see such a terrain as demanding of a savage prose worthy of its darkness.
Alci Rengifo is Cinematics Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.