By Timothy Denevi
Reviewed by Rajpreet Heir
Timothy Denevi's Freak Kingdom is not your typical biography. No, this is a cutting-edge nonfiction writer writing about a cutting-edge nonfiction writer. Not only do readers get to learn about Hunter S. Thompson's best writing years, we also get to enjoy a style of writing that suits the project instead of one that blindly follows the rules of the biography genre—Denevi's creative decisions elevate Thompson's story and broaden our understanding of nonfiction along the way.
Let's start at the end: Denevi's hundred pages of notes, which make up a quarter of the book and are much more conversational than you might expect in a biography. Denevi's notes break Freak Kingdom open, the process of writing it, Denevi's literary inspirations, and even his artistic recommendations. He directly addresses readers by explaining, "My goal is for you to understand my starting point with the material and the manner in which I've ended up using it." Rather than expecting readers to accept all the research he's done, Denevi is admitting that not every fact is straightforward, that a distance exists with some of them, and that as the author, he translates them the best he can. Therefore, the endnotes are meant to engage the reader and they are written as such. Denevi openly tells us he composed his notes from a conversation with James Salter two days after it took place, and that he doesn't know all the facts about the fight Thompson had with his first wife Sandy at the house in Parnassus, but that he tried to use Bob Geiger's account while including descriptions from others to get at what happened. As readers, we have to wonder if we're comfortable with that.
Likewise, some of the physical details Denevi uses to open the book's second chapter come from his own experiences walking around San Francisco on semesters back home from college. Are biographers allowed to combine their own experiences with those of their subject? Again, Denevi goes beyond merely presenting sources, but actually has us examine our understanding of biographies and how staunchly we stand with tradition. In his notes, he jumps from references to Michael Ondaatje, Stephen Colbert, Maggie Nelson, George Orwell, The Grateful Dead, and William Faulkner. It truly works. If these are artists who inspired Deneviin his writing process, then they belong in the notes section too. Who says our sources just have to be interviews or books about the subject? Denevi's book isn't just about Thompson's writing, but also about form; he's pushing for more creative freedom by demonstrating what it can look like.
Divided into six chapters, Denevi takes us through Thompson's career—starting with the assassination of JFK, moving on to his breakthrough coverage of the Hells Angels, and on toward his coverage of the 1972 campaign trail. Though Freak Kingdom is linear, Denevi is a master time-jumper—a strength of his first book, Hyper, as well. For instance, when Thompson rides to the airport with Richard Nixon, Denevi refers back to a comment Nixon made fifteen years earlier, then forward to a comment he made at the 1960 Republican Convention, then forward to his introduction to Barry Goldwater, and then forward again to the present setting of 1968 New Hampshire. Then in Thompson's conversation with Nixon, Denevi moves four years backwards to a conversation Thompson had had with Geiger about football, and then back to the 1968 New Hampshire sedan conversation again. All of this time-jumping happens across just three pages and it adds great texture to the scene. The shaping and arrangement of the scene makes it easier for readers to understand the significance of the conversation.
Denevi uses repetition well too. On page ten, he mentions how Thompson and Sandy's dog slept between them and then the next time the dog appears, thirty pages later, we learn he has to be given away since the couple is struggling. This adds to a larger theme of the book—Thompson's sacrifices to create good art. Another signpost of sorts is the couple's window overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, which is introduced on page thirty. The bridge's lights through the fog are mentioned on page forty-five, then again when Thompson looks at the window after the first time he takes LSD on page fifty-seven. On page sixty-six he's at his desk through the fall with a deadline approaching, and on seventy-two, he sits down by the broken window and no longer can see his own reflection, but only darkness. As readers, we can count on the recurring mention of the bridge to take us to an important turn and this does indeed happen. The lights are also effective because they get at another of Denevi's themes: doom. Thompson's troubled nature is mentioned early on and the dramatized use of the lights shows us what that means in scene form. In Denevi's introduction, he states: "In these pages I've tried to dramatize his political evolution in the manner a novel might—while also citing every detail and quote along the way . . ." With the lights and the dogs, we see this combination of research and novelistic styling.
Another great artistic move Denevi makes is the use of Thompson's drive on Whittier Boulevard to Oscar Acosta's place in March of 1971, upon which Denevi hangs a bunch of other information: a Vietnam War protest that had happened in Laguna Park, how the area had been a scene of upheaval, the past week Thompson had spent with Acosta, the Brown Berets, Ruben Salazar, and more. This is a great set-up to the sections to come and is arranged well. Does the scene unfold exactly as it happened to Thompson? No. But does it need to? Denevi includes a line Thompson wrote to an editor: "Fiction is a bridge to the truth that the mechanics of journalism can't reach." Freak Kingdom combines biography with memoir and fiction and more to get at truth. Thompson created new styles of writing and Denevi does as well with this book.