Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Book review: Freak Kingdom, Timothy Denevi (2018)

This biography of Hunter Thompson, the practitioner of new journalism who, with Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Tom Wolfe, redrew the boundaries of journalism in the 1960s, starts promisingly but digs itself into a rut by about 21 percent of the way through the book.

By this time, you are deep in the 1968 presidential campaign and by this time the language that is being deployed to form the narrative purely reflects the insider’s view. For me, the representative scene is a ride that Thompson shared with Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon in the latter’s limousine as they were being taken to an airport. Nixon is on his way to Florida for a break from campaigning. As they sit there in the back of the car, they start talking about gridiron football and the language becomes completely opaque for someone who does not understand the game. The referents are crystal clear for the participants, but for someone looking in from outside the country, the dialogue may as well have been written in Swahili as English for all the sense it makes.

It wasn’t like this in the early parts of this book, the parts that deal with Thompson’s emergence, after the assassination of John F Kennedy, as a young writer on the make in San Francisco. It was in those years that he wrote the seminal study on the outlaw motorcycle club, the Hells Angels, that made his name and gave him the public profile he needed to write the types of stories he had always aspired to write.

As soon as Thompson loses the neophyte’s hunger and becomes embroiled in the political machinery that animates the republic every four years, all poetry in the book is lost and you are mired in the jargon of the politically savvy. The universal applicability that characterises Thompson’s writing, the thing that makes it so engrossing for people all around the world, is suddenly jettisoned and in its place sits a stubborn miasma of narrow referents that have nothing to do with anything other than themselves. This is a signal failure in a book about someone as broadly respected as Hunter Thompson. Denevi just goes too fast, and takes no care to make sure that people who live outside the bubble can keep up with the pace he sets. There are even acronyms that are not explained, leaving the outsider floundering helplessly at times.

This book is subtitled ‘Hunter S. Thompson's Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism’ but in the end it turns out to be just a deeply-flawed because myopic Beltway version of part of the country’s recent history. I’m not concerned that I didn’t finish the book. Like most American journalists, Denevi seems to me to be just another self-obsessed liberal with a particular axe to grind. Seen in this light, his book is just another artefact to be dragged into the machine of contemporary politics where it can form material for some random current debate in a place where the only people who know the borders of foreign countries, and the only people who care what they look like, are the spooks at the CIA.

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