Nar­ra­tive digs deep

Gonzo jour­nal­ist bio tack­les late re­porter’s drive


The com­mon im­age of the late jour­nal­ist Hunter S. Thomp­son is one of a drug- in­duced writer who rode with the Hells An­gels, often shot up his red IBM Selec­tric type­writer and helped Chi­cano at­tor­ney Os­car Zeta Acosta burn the lawn of a Cal­i­for­nia judge.

But a new book on the coun­ter­cul­ture cru­sader at­tempts to dig deeper into the mis­sion of a writer who pushed “gonzo jour­nal­ism” — a style of jour­nal­ism writ­ten with­out claims of ob­jec­tiv­ity and with the jour­nal­ist at the cen­tre.

Freak King­dom looks into the events of the tur­bu­lent 1960s and ’ 70s that drove Thomp­son to lit­er­ary jour­nal­ism and his de­sire to tackle what he saw as a ris­ing tide of fas­cism in the United States. That in­cluded the as­sas­si­na­tion of U. S. Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy, the per­sis­tence of the Viet­nam War and the rise of Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon and his mon­i­tor­ing of ac­tivist groups. For Thomp­son, these events were an at­tack on the essence of the foun­da­tion of the United States and hu­man­i­ties. He de­cided early on to use his skills as a jour­nal­ist to com­bat the rise of a to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism event when it af­fected his men­tal state, his mar­riage and his health.

For ex­am­ple, Denevi writes that af­ter the po­lice at­tack on anti- war pro­test­ers at the 1968 Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion, Thomp­son es­caped to his Chicago ho­tel room to con­tem­plate the im­age of po­lice beat­ing jour­nal­ists. “His clothes stank with chem­i­cals. His gut aches,” Denevi writes. “His en­tire body was shak­ing. He couldn’t write. None of it made sense.”

Un­like other por­tray­als of Thomp­son as a sim­plis­tic al­co­holdriver jour­nal­ist who brushed off iden­tity pol­i­tics, Denevi’s book ar­gues that Thomp­son was in­deed dis­turbed by the plight of young pro­test­ers, Chi­canos and other mi­nori­ties as the fed­eral gov­ern­ment sought to quiet dis­sent. He wouldn’t be silent, es­pe­cially dur­ing the Nixon pres­i­dency.

Denevi, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor in the MFA pro­gram at Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity, crafts his bi­og­ra­phy like a non- fic­tion novel, let­ting his re­search un­fold in a capit­vat­ing nar­ra­tive that places read­ers at some of the most im­por­tant episodes of Thomp­son’s ca­reer.

The bi­og­ra­phy is the lat­est en­try into the lives of Thomp­son and his coun­ter­cul­ture pal, Acosta. The PBS doc­u­men­tary The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buf­falo touches on the pair dur­ing the Chi­cano Move­ment in Los An­ge­les.

The re­newed in­ter­est in Thomp­son comes amid self- re­flec­tion by many jour­nal­ists in the era of U. S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and wor­ries over fraud­u­lent news sites.

Denevi’s work re­minds us that the per­sis­tent con­cern about to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism over­whelm­ing free speech isn’t some­thing new. And 50 years ago, one jour­nal­ist de­cided to do some­thing about it.

Freak King­dom: Hunter S. Thomp­son’s Manic Ten- Year Cru­sade Against Amer­i­can Fas­cism Ti­mothy Denevi PublicAf­fairs

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