In ‘Freak Kingdom,’ a professor examines the political Hunter S. Thompson
Woody Creek rancher Wayne Vagneur knocked on his neighbor's door to deliver the news of President Kennedy's assassination Nov. 22, 1963. The neighbor was Hunter S. Thompson — living in a rented cabin during his first stint as a Woody Creeker — who would write the phrase "fear and loathing" for the first time later that crushing day in a letter to a friend.
In the sober and serious new book "Freak Kingdom," author Timothy Denevi argues that Thompson had a political awakening in that moment and thus began a tireless decade-long mission combatting American fascism and fighting for the ideals of the U.S. Constitution as he reinvented journalism.
Denevi, a professor in the MFA program at George Mason University and nonfiction editor at the online journal Literary Hub, focuses his clear-eyed narrative on Thompson as a political writer from that dark November 1963 day to Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974, tracking his work through the Vietnam era and a tortured decade of American history.
"I'm continually struck by how talented and how on-point he was about America, institutional injustice and the ways the people with the most power retain that power through un-democratic means," Denevi said in a recent phone interview.
Denevi's book is about the intellectual substance of Thompson rather than the illicit substances and hijinks that often take precedence in biographical treatments. It is telling, for instance, that the book's section covering the period of the drug-addled road trip with attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta that inspired "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" focuses far more upon the fact that Thompson was simultaneously reporting another story at the time: "Strange Rumblings in Aztlan," about the Chicano civil rights movement and the police killing of journalist Ruben Salazar in Los Angeles.
This scholarly treatment chronicles Thompson's dogged work on police brutality, surveillance and abuses of power of every stripe, his watershed 1970 "Freak Power" campaign for sheriff here in Pitkin County, his years in the miasma of American politics on the presidential campaign trail and, of course, his commitment to expose the criminality of President Nixon.
Denevi will discuss and sign his book Wednesday at the Temporary at Willits. The midvalley venue is marking the publication of "Freak Kingdom" with two nights of events. On Tuesday, it will host a conversation between Hunter's son, Juan Thompson, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Loren Jenkins about Thompson's political legacy followed by a screening of the 2008 documentary "Gonzo."
Denevi brands Thompson an anti-fascist committed to exposing and defeating a messy and particularly American strain of totalitarianism. The election of Donald Trump two years ago lit a fire under Denevi, who covered the 2016 presidential conventions for LitHub, to tell this story.
"I think the prism of America right now, after 2016, focused my view on what matters and what doesn't, in terms of political commitment," he said.
He looked to Thompson as a model for what writers and activists might do to combat Trump's agenda effectively.
"I became fascinated by the question that (Thompson) and Oscar Acosta were constantly deliberating, which is, 'Do you work within the system to make it better? Or has it gotten to a point where the system itself is so corrupt that it needs to be torn down?'" he recalled. "In this sense, Hunter Thompson was an optimist, which you wouldn't think. But he did believe he could work in the system as a journalist on the campaign trail or as a political activist running for sheriff in Aspen."
Denevi's book makes the case that Thompson's campaign for sheriff clarified his thinking about government policy and solidified Thompson's political ideology of protecting civil liberties and the environment, reforming the criminal justice system and providing checks on power. After being beaten by police and demoralized by the crack-down on protesters and press at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Thompson found something like hope in his work in local politics here.
"Being able to see change on the ground level in Aspen, after being brutally denied any chance of that change in Chicago and throughout the horror of 1968 was an incredible, I think, experience for him and how participatory democracy can work — how working within the system can effect important change," Denevi said.
The protests against the war in Vietnam and against Nixon weren't getting anything done, Thompson had concluded. As he put it, "there was no point in yelling at the f—ers. They were born deaf and stupid."
Instead, Thompson began infiltrating the system, beginning with Joe Edwards' mayoral campaign in Aspen in 1969, with his own bid for sheriff, and then as a campaign journalist for Rolling Stone championing presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972.
Thompson's campaign, as Aspenites know, lost in the short-term but won the long game, finding torchbearers in the revolutionary anti-development county commissioners of the 1970s and in a line of progressive sheriffs who have shaped local policy in the "Freak Power" tradition.
Denevi's lively and well-researched account of the "Freak Power" movement argues that it was a crucible for Thompson, which prepared and propelled him to go back onto the national scene and undertake his herculean run of prolific journalism in the early 1970s railing against Nixon and the far right.
"It bolstered him to go back out on the campaign trail," Denevi said.
Denevi writes in clean and unadorned prose. He thankfully doesn't attempt to match the fireworks of Thompson's inimitable writing, from which he quotes judiciously. Aware of the siren song of the incendiary gonzo style, Denevi said, he chose to read works by another Aspenite — James Salter — to get a more restrained style into his head as he was working on "Freak Kingdom."
"I tried to imagine James Salter writing about a friend," he explained. "That was my magnet away from Thompson."
Denevi argues that Thompson's legendary drug and alcohol intake was largely utilitarian — a tool that fueled him beyond his natural physical limits to write as prolifically as he did over this decade. "Freak Kingdom" makes particular note of Thompson's use of the amphetamine Dexedrine through this era to keep up the prodigious pace of his writing. Citing revealing correspondence with Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner from the spring of 1973, Denevi argues that the speed and alcohol caught up with Thompson's mind, body and family life as the Nixon era waned.
"Thompson could sense that something drastic was happening — to his body, to his self-identification as a literary writer," Denevi writes. "Most of all: to his relationship with the world and the people he cared about."
The book ends vividly with Nixon resigning and Thompson at the Washington Hilton missing his deadline to write about it for Rolling Stone. Denevi suggests that, after this fierce decade-long fight and a final depressing victory over Nixon, Thompson's tank was empty.
"It took 12 years of sustained work and attention to arrive at this point where the most crooked president in history is being driven from office," Denevi said. "It would be hard to look at that event and not to see how much effort that demanded. And, in doing so, to look ahead at what you would do next, to be unable to think of doing it again."