Hunter S. Thompson looms large in twentieth-century cultural history. Perhaps no other journalist, gonzo or otherwise, has enjoyed so much notoriety...or deserved it. You could mention other famous figures — your Murrows and Cronkites and Woodwards and the like — but in terms of infiltrating the zeitgeist, Hunter S. Thompson was a scribbling, scathing ninja.
But author Tim Denevi, assistant professor at George Mason University, believes that Thompson’s legacy is far more complex, that he was much more than the drug-addled, wisecracking cartoon pictured in the Terry Gilliam movie starring Johnny Depp, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Denevi’s new book, Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson’s Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Facism, argues that he should be remembered as a fearless and ferocious opponent of corruption and fascism, rewriting the rules of journalism and political satire as he went.
In advance of his reading at the Tattered Cover LoDo on November 13, Denevi spoke with us about Thompson's time in Colorado, as well as his contributions to journalism and political activism. Given the state of America today, the true story of Thompson's life could not be more timely — and just might inspire the next generation of fearless and ferocious voices.
Westword: You're appearing at Tattered Cover LoDo to read from your Hunter S. Thompson bio, Freak Kingdom. Considering the Colorado connections to this book, what are you planning on reading?
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Tim Denevi: That’s an excellent question. In one sense, this book is about the West — its settings include the San Francisco Bay Area, where I grew up; Los Angeles; and the Rockies — and the scenes that take place in and around Aspen rely heavily on the physicality of the region, which Thompson loved. I’d like to read from some of the sections set in Colorado: There’s a dramatized retelling of Thompson’s run for sheriff in 1970 and the threats he faced down, as well as the first meeting, at the Jerome Hotel in the summer of 1967, between Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta, the civil-rights activist and attorney. There’s also a depiction of a 1970 dinner party between Thompson and the novelist James Salter, a longtime Aspen resident, that I’d love to somehow get to, though I’m not sure there’ll be time… .
Where does the title Freak Kingdom come from?
The title is drawn from three quotes by Thompson. The first and most well known is from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, when the narrator is plotting his escape from the desert and back to Southern California, where he can once again feel lost in a crowd: “There is only one road to L.A. — US Interstate 15, a straight run with no backroads or alternate routes, just a flat-out high-speed burn through Baker and Barstow and Berdoo and then on the Hollywood Freeway straight into frantic oblivion: safety, obscurity, just another freak in the Freak Kingdom.”
The second is from his book about the 1972 presidential campaign. While covering a stage-managed whistle-stop tour for Senator Ed Muskie, Thompson ran into a wild young stranger named Peter Sheridan, whom he described as “an obvious aristocrat of the Freak Kingdom.” “There was no doubt about it,” Thompson added. “This bastard was a serious, king-hell Crazy. He had that rare weird electricity about him — that extremely wild & heavy presence that you only see in a person who has abandoned all hope of ever behaving ‘normally.’”
And finally — and perhaps most important — there’s an explanation that Thompson offered while he was on stage during the 1970 Pitkin County sheriff’s debate, which for me helps contextualize what he was talking about in the other two mentions (it serves as this book’s epigraph): “I’m not at all embarrassed at the use of the word freak. I think the way things are going in this country today, it’s a very honorable designation, and I’m proud of it. To be abnormal, to deviate from the style of government that I deplore in America today, is not only wise but necessary.”
This book was clearly written to set the record straight on Hunter S. Thompson. Tell us a little about the gonzo journalist that we don't know — the one beyond the Raoul Duke caricature? What are we misunderstanding, if we're only seeing his Johnny Depp world?
One thing that gets lost, in my opinion, is the moral clarity of his writing — how he saw, with a keen sense of urgency, both the potential and the flaws inherent to the American system of government. He believed that you could work within this system to make things better, but he also understood that the very worst among us — from police chiefs to party bosses to the president of the United States — are doing everything they can to bend the same system to their own authoritarian, non-democratic ends.
Such clarity was hard-earned; I think few people realize just how tirelessly Thompson worked during the period of time in which this book is set — the Kennedy assassination to Nixon’s resignation — as a freelance journalist hoping to use the most available aspect of the republic available to him, the free press, to hold accountable the most ruthless and powerful people in the country. He spent one of the most extraordinary decades in our history reading and reporting and writing nonstop. As such, the Duke caricature can feel like a disservice. To quote Douglas Brinkley, the executor of Thompson’s literary estate: “He wasn’t eating acid then. He was eating speed— that was his drug of choice, to keep him writing all night. He was not as much fun as he painted himself to be.”
So is even the use of the term "gonzo journalist" reductionist? Is Hunter S. Thompson someone who's impossible to accurately speak about in sound bites and Twitter-limits?
I think that’s an excellent point. One of Thompson’s greatest skills was his ability to make long-form journalism feel necessary and vibrant — to engage his readers with novelistic scenes, essayistic insights, careful research and reportage, and a memoirist’s knack for dramatizing on the page his own personal bewilderment. It’s something that can’t be summed up in a few hundred characters, to say the least. And part of the goal of Freak Kingdom has been to offer the readers the chance to immerse themselves, over a few hundred narrative-heavy pages, in Thompson’s journey toward this perspective, over the course of which he found himself on hand for some of the most politically charged moments of the previous decade, from the Republican National Convention in San Francisco to the 1968 DNC police riot in Chicago, Nixon’s inauguration and, of course, the drawn-out spectacle of the Watergate hearings.
Speaking of Twitter, given your familiarity with the man, what do you think Thompson's reaction would be to the Trump era of American politics?
For this question, I think it’s probably best to let Thompson’s words speak for themselves. … Here are three specific quotes, updated to replace one authoritarian leader for another. I’ve changed names, numbers and dates:
This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it— that we are really just a nation of 330 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable… what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Donald Trump… Hillary Clinton made some stupid mistakes, but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Donald Trump does every day of his life, on purpose, as a matter of policy and a perfect expression of everything he stands for. Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President?
After two years of watching a gang of fascist thugs treating the White House and the whole machinery of the federal government like a conquered empire to be used like the spoils of war for any purpose that served either the needs or whims of the victors, not even the ominous sight of Vice President Mike Pence hovering a heartbeat away from the presidency had much effect on my head.
It is Donald Trump himself who represents that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character almost every other country in the world has learned to fear and despise. Our Barbie doll President, with his Barbie doll wife and his box-full of Barbie doll children is also America’s answer to the monstrous Mr. Hyde. He speaks for the Werewolf in us; the bully, the predatory shyster who turns into something unspeakable, full of claws and bleeding string-warts, on nights when the moon comes too close….
At the stroke of midnight in Washington, a drooling red-eyed beast with the legs of a man and a head of a giant hyena crawls out of its bedroom window in the South Wing of the White House and leaps fifty feet down to the lawn… pauses briefly to strangle the Chow watchdog, then races off into the darkness… towards the FBI building, snarling with lust, loping through the alleys behind Pennsylvania Avenue, and trying desperately to remember which one of those four hundred identical balconies is the one outside Robert Mueller’s apartment…”
Freak Kingdom has hundreds of pages of footnotes and citations, not including the bibliography. What sort of time does that level of painstaking research take? Does the writing get lost in the process at times?
An enormous amount! The book contains new information, based on interviews and research, but first I needed to read everything already available on Hunter S. Thompson’s life during the decade in which it is set. One of the few things I remember from an old research/journalism class is: Never ask someone a question in an interview if you can look up the answer yourself. As such, during the composition of the book, I’d spend sixteen hours a day working on it, about ten of which consisted of research/sourcing/outlining, as to prepare and account for the section I’d then write.
But such effort was for the writing: I wanted to tell Thompson’s story novelistically, to dramatize it, and the only way to do so — and have it still be a work of narrative nonfiction — was to account for every image, description, line of dialogue, characterization and reaction I put onto the page.
It’s a biography, yes, but I wanted to take what I find to be the most compelling aspect of this form — gathering and arranging information — and push my own rendering of this material, its narrative shape, in a cinematic direction, offering readers the chance to see Thompson moving through history. As such, the notes are a way, for me, to earn this new form — to write lyrically and scenically while at the same time accounting for everything I offer. I want you to be there with Hunter Thompson on the page, experiencing what he did, instead of just being told in summary what happened.
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In this sense, at the heart of the book is the issue of authenticity: Thompson’s, of course, but also my own. For the readers to trust the story I’m telling, I think it’s important for them to see where I started with the material and how I used it to tell the story.
In the end, what should Colorado remember about Hunter S. Thompson? What's the carry-away, on a local level, for a writer of such national stature?
Thompson’s experiences in local political activism are so instructive. After the 1968 DNC in Chicago, where he and other members of the press were beaten and bloodied by Mayor Daley’s police, he returned to Woody Creek disillusioned with national politics; it was clear to him that the people in charge weren’t capable of listening, and no amount of protests were going to change that. Instead, he began to work at the local level to improve Aspen and Pitkin County — to fight the greedy, authoritarian, anti-democratic forces in his own backyard. He ran a mayoral and a sheriff’s campaign on an environmental/pro civil-rights/anti-development platform. And with like-minded citizens, he effected real change. It’s a message that feels especially apt today: When the country is on the brink, and when the White House is occupied by blatant criminals who’d destroy the tenets on which our democracy is based to make themselves richer, how can Coloradans continue to organize and fight against these forces into their own back yard? In times like these we’re all activists, and Hunter Thompson’s decade-long fight against injustice remains, in my opinion, more important than ever.
Tim Denevi will read from and sign copies of his book Freak Kingdom at the Tattered Cover LoDo, 1628 16th Street, at 7 p.m. Tuesday, November 13. Admission is free; find out more at tatteredcover.com.