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Hunter S. Thompson: Chronicling the Republic’s Fall

Photo Source David Drexler | CC BY 2.0

Hunter S. Thompson is one of, if not the most, famous journalist of the last fifty years. His inimitable style and approach to the work of journalism made it an art form, with his mastery in a domain of its own. The first ten years of his work included three books—Hells Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail 1972. These books not only sold lots of copies and garnered innumerable positive reviews and much praise, they also provided the world with a uniquely manic, even psychedelic vision of the twentieth century USA. This vision was not necessarily (if ever) pretty. Indeed, at times it was filled with a darkness that described an evil in grotesque scenarios reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings of hell and William S. Burroughs’ descriptions of his fictional place he called the Interzone.

Crucial to Thompson’s best pages describing the nature of the America he wrote about was the man he felt embodied the darkest elements of the United States of America. That man was Richard Nixon. Nixon the politician, Nixon the president, Nixon the con artist, Nixon the actor. Both a foil and a villain for Thompson, Nixon represented the forces of greed, hatred, racism and fear that continue to plague US society and culture to this day. It is these forces and humans like Nixon all too willing to manipulate them that have done more to destroy the ideals of democracy and freedom this nation claims to uphold. It is men and women like Nixon who manipulate the mechanics of democracy to destroy democracy. This was the fundamental belief that underlined all of Thompson’s writing. One can only wonder what he would write today in this time of the Trumpists.

Ultimately, Thompson became as famous as his works. Some would even argue that he was more famous. It is this cult of personality that both fed his success and ensured his slide downward. Movies were made about him and biographies were published. He even became the model for a Doonesbury comics character. While this attention may have helped him financially, it detracted from his writing and his family. Still, he continued writing his uniquely composed insights and attacks on the unfolding situation that are modern times until he died, never sparing the powerful from his still sharp pen.

Quite recently, a new biography of Thompson was published. Titled Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson’s Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism and authored by Timothy Denevi, this text captures the essence of Thompson’s most prolific (and arguably his best) years as a journalist. Denevi begins his story just before his subject moves to San Francisco as a reporter for the National Observer. He ends this biography about ten years later shortly after the book publication of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972. In between, the reader visits (or re-visits) the Bay Area counterculture, the Los Angeles Chicano uprisings, Thompson’s campaign for sheriff in Colorado, the trips with Zeta Acosta to Las Vegas and the McGovern and Nixon presidential campaigns of 1972. Denevi skillfully weaves together Thompson’s family life and his working life. He describes his riding and drinking with the Hells Angels and riding and drinking with the campaign press corps. He discusses Thompson’s amphetamine use and his drinking. Context and details are woven into a multidimensional tale that brings the reader into the historical moment being chronicled. Denevi’s writing does more than just bring the period alive, it makes one want to be there as if it were brand new.

There’s never been a better chronicler of the death of US democracy than Hunter S. Thompson. The rest of us can only write in the shadows his work cast. Similarly, there has never been a Hunter S. Thompson biographer who has captured Thompson’s work as well as Denevi. In this biography, one is reminded not only of the impressionistic intensity of Thompson’s writing but also of its brutal clarity; of his ability to force the reader to acknowledge and ascertain his truths. By putting Thompson’s work first, Denevi’s book has helped ensure that Thompson has a prime place in the pantheon of American writers. Simply put, Freak Kingdom does justice to Hunter S. Thompson.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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