Hunter S. Thompson was no Beat writer but as an important figure in 20th century countercultural history (and my favourite writer by no small margin) he is often featured in Beatdom. Yet with a plethora of books on the Beats released this year and last, I somehow overlooked Timothy Denevi’s Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson’s Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism. I finally got a copy last weekend, and quickly read through this stunning new study of Gonzo journalism.

book cover for freak kingdom

There have been several biographies of Thompson’s life (with William McKeen’s being the very best) but this new book takes a quite specific period – about ten years – and looks at how Thompson used the skills at his disposal to fight for what he believed in – or, perhaps more accurately, against what he despised.

Hunter Thompson was a patriot and a believer in the US constitution above all else, and he was sickened by what he saw on the political front in the 1960s. From Barry Goldwater’s Hitlerian speeches to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, where Thompson was savagely beaten by police along with countless others, he was appalled at the rise of fascism, violence, corruption, and hate that was consuming his country. It all became so normal that it appeared to him that the end was near. Someone had to fight it.

The pen, they say, is mightier than the sword. But the police in the United States in the late-sixties did not have swords; they had guns, tear gas, shields, and there were no consequences for their violent actions. Above them were ranks of corrupt politicians willing to do anything to maintain their grip on power. Into this mix came Richard Nixon 2.0 – the most duplicitous and vile politician Thompson had seen. Much of his best writing came from wielding his pen against Nixon and his ilk, using his formidable literary talents to take these men to task.

fear and loathing on the campaign trail 72 book cover, Freak Kingdom

Elsewhere in this book, we see the emergence of Thompson’s peculiar Gonzo style – the novel-like journalism for which he became famous. We see him develop from a writer with an edge to the man who wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, perhaps the most important book of its era, and then we see him tragically go over the edge: Having battled Nixon for nearly a decade, Thompson was so exhausted and damaged that he failed to attend his impeachment speech or even write about the final downfall of the man’s whose presidency he so wonderfully covered in his Rolling Stone articles.

This book is written like a biography, but only focuses on the ten-year period during which Thompson approached, reached, and then quickly fell from his literary peak. Denevi’s style of writing is engaging, fast-paced, and effective. He takes the reader through the turbulent times rather well, moving the focus back and forth between Thompson and the events in Vietnam, the White House, Kent State, or the kitchen where Robert Kennedy was tragically gunned down. It is a chronicle of a fascinating period of history and the man who wrote so much of it in such a unique voice.

This is, in short, an excellent book and a must-read for those interested in Hunter S. Thompson – or, indeed, the turbulent period of American history during which it is set.