‘Freak Kingdom’ book review: Hunter S. Thompson’s Decade of Greatness

by Kyle K. Mann, GonzoToday Editor in chief

The time frame of Freak Kingdom is well chosen by author Timothy Denevi: from the death of John F. Kennedy to the resignation of Richard M. Nixon.

It was a time of great madness; there was insanity in every direction. As a struggling writer who wanted to make a difference, Hunter S.Thompson found his purpose.

The unbelievably brutal public murder in 1963 of a popular young U.S. president resonates darkly all the way into our era of the ‘20s, whether one lived through the shocking event or not.

Born in 1937, Thompson was 26 when the assassination occurred. Using Thompson’s letters from the period, Denevi sets the table for an examination of Thompson’s worldview, clearly shaped by the trauma of the darkness that settled over America, and elsewhere, starting on that horrific day in Dallas.

In a subsequent letter describing his deep angst the following week, Thompson uses the term “fear and loathing” for the first time.

Thompson’s progress toward becoming an accomplished writer was already considerable by the time of JFK’s death. He started with sports articles, a field which occupied him for years. Later, he became established as an international political observer, with experience reporting for The National Observer.

The fact is, Hunter Thompson had already lived a rich, complex and at times tragic life before the chosen time frame for Freak Kingdom.

The Gonzo Nitty-Gritty: The Right-Wingers’ Convention

Denevi’ s meticulously referenced book goes into detail on Thompson’s attendance at the 1964 Republican Convention in San Francisco, and the resulting presidential nomination of arch-conservative Senator Barry Goldwater. 

It was a searing experience for Thompson, and reading the descriptions of the event is disturbing well over a half century later. By taking U.S. politics to the hard right, Goldwater and the Republican Party dragged the Democratic Party with them. A strong case can be made that this was the key event that has led us to President Trump.

Biographer Denevi is on target with his focused examination of Thompson’s reactions to the changes sweeping over American society in the 1963-‘64 period. Denevi also scores with his detailed descriptions of Thompson’s great friendship with Bob Geiger, a surgeon and neighbor. 

Dr. Geiger was responsible for introducing Thompson to the amphetamine dexedrine which, along with alcohol, served as Hunter’s lifelong self-medication. The book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is dedicated in part to Geiger “for reasons which need not be explained here.” Those reasons include Geiger’s financial and emotional support and encouragement in Thompson’s time living in the Bay Area, and specifically Geiger’s work with Thompson on the drafts of his ‘60s breakthrough work, Hell’s Angels.The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.

Freak Kingdom also touches on Thompson’s complex relationship with his wife Sandy and their scramble to live on Thompson’s early meager and inconsistent financial earnings. Sandy had to work part-time to help support their son Juan. Her reluctant tolerance for her husband’s association with the Hell’s Angels gang members allowed for Thompson’s seminal magazine article for The Nation, which then led to the book.

Denevi takes note of another key figure in the Angel’s book: Thompson’s copy editor, Margaret Harrell, with whom Thompson worked on the final draft and engaged in a clandestine affair. Harrell is an unsung hero in Thompson’s rise to literary prominence.  She put a professional polish on what would become the pre-Gonzo origin of Thompson’s persona; she condoned his detailed personal involvement in the story he was reporting on.

Despite the excellent sales of Hell’s Angels, Thompson was aghast at the paltry financial return, due to the contract that gave much of the income to publisher Random House. Moving from San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury to Aspen, Colorado, Thompson invested the bulk of his earnings in the now-legendary Owl Farm property outside of town.

It was in the summer of 1967 at Aspen’s also-legendary Jerome Hotel, that Thompson met attorney Oscar Acosta, who would become the “Dr. Gonzo” of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The rest, as the cliche goes, is history. 

Straight, or Gonzo?

Ok, that is the non-Gonzo part of this book review. 

The real question in any review is, should I pay money for this damn thing? My vote is a resounding yes, both for fans of Thompson and those less enamored of his style.

Bottom line, it’s a good read.

How did we get here, in this increasingly nightmarish world of the New ‘20s? This book explains much of it, as Thompson, already alienated by conventional society, became increasingly hostile as President Lyndon B. Johnson escalated the Vietnam War into a fantastic ongoing war crime, dividing US society into antagonistic halves. 

I hate to admit it, but it scarred my life and left me permanently enraged. I finally went to Vietnam and Cambodia in the ‘90s and saw it for myself. The trip didn’t help; it left me so paralyzed by horror that I have massive difficulties relating to people who are clueless on the topic of war and what it does.

Freak Kingdom is ultimately healing. It shows how one man, with grit, determination and yes, a lot of support and luck, was able to entertain and enlighten many of us through the Nixon years. It’s extremely difficult to describe how deeply hideous those years were to those who didn’t live through them. 

Those years began in 1968, inaugurated by the utter disaster that was the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Thompson attended that convention, witnessed the chaos and was beaten by the cops, giving him the unique distinction of having been struck by both Hell’s Angels and uniformed police. That fiasco of a convention led directly to the election of Richard Milhous Nixon.

Nixon and Beyond

Though a sizable percentage of his fans are unaware of it, Thompson’s detailed writing on the rise and slow fall of Nixon is some of his best stuff. Freak Kingdom goes into detail on what I consider to be Thompson’s finest work, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72, an excruciating odyssey through a time when the USA had a choice to recover from Nixon and LBJ, and chose wrongly.

The value of Freak Kingdom is the convenience of Denevi’s portrait of Thompson, as it pulls together a narrative based on numerous sources. The story of Hunter S. Thompson’s best decade as a writer is huge, and to fit it into a coherent narrative that flows requires intricate compression. On this score Denevi succeeds brilliantly. It’s all there: Thompson’s run for sheriff of Aspen on the Freak Power ticket, his first fully Gonzo Journalism writing for Scanlan’s Monthly on the Kentucky Derby, the work with Oscar Acosta on the death of journalist Reuben Salazar, and the true story of “the Vegas Book,” which I knew part of but found myself surprised by. Indeed, as a lifelong Thompson fan, there was a lot here I didn’t know and needed to know. I needed this book 20 years ago.

Unfortunately, Thompson is largely remembered for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Sure, it’s a terrific book, but there is so much more to the man and his writing, and Freak Kingdom goes a long way towards making that clear.

As the New ‘20s loom before us, we have all become “just another freak in the freak kingdom.” It’s going to be interesting to see how many of us survive this decade, and in what style. Freak Kingdom inspires me to keep on writing.

While I still can. 


Kyle K. Mann

Topanga

May 3, 2020

Kyle K. Mann
About Kyle K. Mann 62 Articles
Kyle K. Mann is the pen name of a contributor to, and sometimes editor of, Gonzo Today. He lives high atop Topanga, California, where owls hoot and coyotes howl. A radio broadcaster in multiple fields in the 80s and 90s, Kyle currently supports himself part time as a Union film crew member in Hollywood. His articles and interviews first appeared in Gonzo Today in early 2015, and some of them are fairly good.