Timothy Denevi, Freak Kingdom, Public Affairs, 2018

Reviewed by Jessie Szalay

[Review Guidelines]

Early in Freak Kingdom, Timothy Denevi's gripping new biography of Hunter S. Thompson, we learn the origin of the Gonzo journalist's signature phrase. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Thompson wrote of "the fear and loathing that is on me after today's murder." This phrase was inspired by Thompson's prescient worries about the political ramifications of Kennedy's death; it wound up paving the way for Richard Nixon, whom Thompson famously detested.
     That a phrase synonymous with Thompson was based on political concern underscores Denevi's portrayal of Thompson. In Freak Kingdom, Denevi convincingly portrays Thompson as a serious political journalist, even in his most ostentatious works like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. Freak Kingdom follows Thompson from the Kennedy assassination to the Nixon resignation as Thompson attempts to use his unconventional reporting style to maintain "American's core democratic values."
      Denevi supports his claim through extensive library research and interviews. The final third of the book is devoted entirely to detailed notes, citations, and explanations of Denevi's research process. Denevi also realizes his view of Thompson by using some of the techniques that Thompson himself made credible. Like Thompson, Denevi has created a nonfiction book that is also subjective. It embraces authorial interpretation that, Thompson argued, was sometimes necessary writing about established facts.
Denevi tells Thompson's story like a novel, often beginning sections with lushly detailed descriptions of locations and insights about the lives lived within them. Thompson would likely approve of this technique. Denevi acknowledges that while some facts are straightforward, some require translation. And he takes advantage of the narrative possibilities that such translation opens up.
     Thompson's internal life is especially fascinating. Though Denevi does not gloss over Thompson's drug and alcohol abuse, he presents Thompson's mind as thoughtful, shrewd, and, most of all, deeply passionate about democracy and the power of story (fiction and nonfiction alike) to educate. Freak Kingdom trades the popular version of drug-addled, awkward goof in aviators for Thompson as news junkie and policy wonk.
This is seen no more clearly than when Thompson decides to run for sheriff of Aspen, where he lives on a ranch with his wife Sandy and son Juan. Denevi's interest in the intricacies of a local race is contagious. The strategy, dramatic twists, and clashes between issue-driven, boisterous Thompson and the complacent, small-town incumbent read like a political thriller. But Denevi never loses sight of the fact that Thompson ran for office because he believed so deeply in what American democracy could be and felt compelled to do his part to support it.
     Though never mentioned after the introduction, it's clear that Denevi wrote this book with Trump on his mind. Our knowledge of the horrors to come cast Nixon's ruthlessness, cruelty, and communication style in a new light. Denevi's Thompson is a tragic hero of the press, dedicated to its loftiest ideals of truth telling (though unencumbered by any pretense of objectivity) and free from the moral wishy-washiness of the mainstream media. He's the hero that was necessary during the time of Nixon. One can't help but wonder what he would do today.