In his new book, Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson’s Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism, author Timothy Denevi chronicles the early career of writer Hunter S. Thompson — famed in these parts for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — when he was animated, and deeply damaged, by a passionate sense of political urgency, focused largely on the evil of Richard Nixon. In doing so, Denevi explicitly connects the circumstances of Thompson’s political awakening to our current situation, and reintroduces the gonzo writer to the 21st century. (Indeed, he was driven to finish the book in part as a reaction to the election of Donald Trump.)
There have been many books written about Thompson, before and since his 2005 suicide. But by training his microscope on just one phase of the writer’s life — his most fruitful — where others have gone for full bio-sweep, Denevi can go deep into the writer’s political engagement, and the toll it took on him and his family. Not surprisingly, given that it’s Hunter Thompson we’re talking about, there’s a drug angle: the damage done by his reliance on Dexedrine, an amphetamine that helped underwrite his incredible productivity in the years he wrote Hell’s Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.
Denevi’s writing, too, deviates from standard dry-grass rustle of biographical factuality; it has both a novelistic drive and 45,000 words of notes. “I wanted to write in dramatic scenes,” he says, “but I wanted to be able to account for every detail.” Where stories of certain events differ, Denevi’s notes offer multiple versions and explain how he chose the one he used. He figures that for every four or five hours he spent writing narrative, he spent 10 hours researching it.
The period Denevi examines includes Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which, despite its clear political dimensions, is often remembered now as a kind of rolling frat party, thanks in part to its movie version. But it’s worth noting that while the phrase “fear and loathing” has taken on a tinge of high irony, Thompson first used it — in a letter to a friend written immediately after President Kennedy’s assassination — with utmost seriousness. It was his wake-up call.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity; a considerably shortened version appears in the November print edition of Desert Companion.)
What got you started on this project?
Like many people, I first came across Fearing and Loathing in Las Vegas, but one of my favorite works from him ended up being “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan.” It’s the kind of reported, very careful journalism he’s not often known for. (It describes his investigation into the killing of Mexican-American journalist Reuben Salazar by the Los Angeles Police Department.) The whole reason Thompson ended up going to Las Vegas is that Oscar Zeta Acosta (an attorney working on the case, a crucial source for Thompson, and eventually the model for Fear and Loathing’s notorious “Samoan attorney”) was being surveilled not just by the FBI, but LAPD, even Naval Intelligence at one point. There were really were so many different surveillance people after them. (They escaped to Vegas so they could talk freely.)
When I read “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan” and I began to put it together with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I began to understand what Thompson was after as a writer. It has so much to do with justice. It had so much to do with, how do you fight back against powers that are using their powers to silence you, or to eliminate you?
Then I was on an airplane to Palm Springs, and I was reading through Fear and Loathing. I began to make an index of every drug that’s mentioned and every page it’s mentioned on, and whether it’s taken or just mentioned. I began to realize that amphetamine is hardly ever mentioned. I mean, he mentions it obliquely, as “amphetamine psychosis,” and he writes that they had “uppers and downers” — but he never says, “I took Dexedrine.” I began to realize that’s the drug that’s taken the most in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And Thompson is taking it to work, to be able to do the writing he needs to do, to counter the drinking he’s doing, so he can function. It kind of works as this shadow to the entire book. Its consumption is never dramatized, but it’s truly the one that’s inhabiting him. (See below.) That helped me focus on the fact of just how hard Thompson was working — to try to get to the bottom of the Salazar murder case, and in his second trip (to Las Vegas, for the second half of Fear and Loathing), to the district attorneys convention, to really put pressure on these district attorneys who are gathering in this city in 1971, where all of these DA’s, who prosecute vice, are allowed to gamble as much as they want — this state-sanctioned vice they’re allowed to enjoy as long as they don’t question the system.
That kind of melding of Thompson’s anger toward the LAPD, toward Nixon, and toward the complicity of the DA’s and others who enforce the system and never question it — it came together for me, finally, in really what his push was: to write about what’s wrong with in America society, how American democracy is in trouble, the death of the American Dream.
I have a long shelf of books by and about Thompson. Were you surprised to find there was still some open ground to cover?
Those are mostly focused on his whole life, so the whole sweep of his career is being described in 250 pages. I focus on the period of his life from the Kennedy assassination to Nixon’s resignation. (With such a close focus), there were enormous gaps in the material that already existed about everything I wanted to know. So I was able to do interviews to help to fill in those gaps, and look to new sources.
So much of his experience at the time was alluded to, in letters or things he told friends, but hasn’t been dramatized in a way I wanted to read. I wanted to dramatize moments, step by step, instant by instant. So my book has new information, it has new interviews, new research, but it’s really about telling the story of Thompson through this incredibly turbulent and harrowing decade in American history.
I also wanted to get the sense of where Thompson got his ideas of justice. A lot of them came from when he was younger, when he was in jail; a lot came from his going through South America, watching democracies fall apart as he was reporting; it came from being in San Francisco in the 1960s, watching the Free Speech movement in Berkeley; from seeing the Hell’s Angels, and their white male outsiderness, their violent, fascistic anger — he saw all of that, and all of it went to inform his ideas of what justice is, what America could be, how America was failing.
I wasn’t daunted at first because I always feel if I can find a way to dramatize something, I can maybe tell it in a new way. But I was actually heartened to realize there was so much minutiae, and the (existing books) were wide-sweeping, nonscenic summaries, which I love, but which are more biographical and not as novelistic. So I began to feel comfortable in that space.
Another initial engine to this book was, how do I write about the injustice I’m seeing right now with Donald Trump? How do I write about how upset I am with American society in 2016?
Yeah, the reader of this book, encountering your description of the 1964 GOP convention in San Francisco (memorable for Barry Goldwater’s proclamation, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” and the audience’s delirious approval) will be automatically put in mind of a Trump rally.
I hope so. There’s a terrible American populist strain, and I think Thompson was just so attuned to its danger. He was like Gatsby, the way Fitzgerald describes him basically as a seismograph, one of those intricate listening devices that could detect an earthquake thousands of miles away. I think Thompson was so attuned to the way American power perverts itself — the way the goal is the be exactly where we are now, with a weakened Congress, an authoritarian leader …
Freak Kingdom is an attempt to reclaim Thompson as the political writer he was from the cartoonish, jester figure he became. How much of a surprise will your Thompson be to fans captivated by the image of him as a spastic clown in the movie?
I think it’s like Schrödinger’s cat: Both can exist. I hope that someone who enjoys the Johnny Depp version, or dresses up as Hunter Thompson for Halloween, understands that humor, iconoclasm, and outsiderness are inherent tools you can use to fight against power.
What we see in Thompson’s writing (is that) he’s very good at depicting the earlier Thompson — hours before, days before — on the page, as being wrong. As making mistakes: “Well, that was the wrong place to be, and I realized with horror I should get out right away.” It’s a nonfiction technique of showing the past you not understanding something, but that the present you, at the typewriter, now gets it. And he plays that very well. That can come across, in something like a movie, as more cartoonish. But the beauty of his writing is that we know that to be able to get to the composition of that past self, of seeming clownish or bewildered, he has to have gotten to the point of understanding it. There’s that double-edged perspective in his writing that comes through.
(Also), when he ran for sheriff of Pitkin County (Colorado, in 1970), he talked about this idea of being a freak, and the “Freak Power ticket” (essentially, his campaign platform). He says, “I’m not at all embarrassed at the use of the word freak. … I think the way things are going in the country today, it’s a very honorable designation, and I’m proud of it. To be abnormal, to deviate from the style of government (in America) is not only wise, but necessary.” This quote melds, in a sense, this outlandish character with the mysterious Jeffersonian participatory American who deeply believes in using the system to make things better.
There was an outlandishness, but it was a logic — if you have to be outlandish to respond to this government, then that is a just move. I think that resonates today more than anything. And suddenly the clownishness can be put into a different sort of light. A jester is always one of the greatest weapons against totalitarianism, injustice, and runaway, amok power. Trump doesn’t laugh. Nixon didn’t laugh. To use humor against them, they know immediately it is an attack.
What toll did this period, and his commitment to urgent political writing, take on him?
It was devastating. To be a freelance journalist and to move your way up is a very daunting career choice — I think people underestimate how much effort that demands, how much of a toll that takes. He was constantly hustling.
The other thing is, Thompson was an alcoholic since he was 14 years old. (Long plot point summarized: While living in Northern California, Thompson befriended a local doctor, who gave him Dexedrine, a then-legal amphetamine that helped the struggling writer stay awake longer and work continuously, despite his boozing.) It allowed Thompson to strike that Faustian bargain where he was going to burn more quickly. He wasn’t going to give up drinking, he wasn’t going to give up writing at night, and if he had spend the day reporting, he’d just stay up. With Dexedrine, it was basically exchanging time later for time now.
For those 10 years, I think he made that Faustian bargain where he’s like, for this fight against injustice, to be present, to have a voice, he was willing to put off what price he might pay, knowing the bill would come later, which it did. After so much alcoholism in his 30s, Dexedrine would no longer help him recover like it did. So he switched to cocaine in 1974. Really, after that — although there were some really great essays that came later — he was never able to sustain a (great) book-length project.
Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson’s Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism, by Timothy Denevi (Public Affairs)