An assistant professor at George Mason University, Denevi didn’t want to write another full-on Thompson biography, but rather focus on the 11 years between John F. Kennedy’s assassination and Nixon’s resignation, when Thompson found himself in the middle of history more than a few times. “When people think of Hunter Thompson, they don’t necessarily think of the talented journalist with a very clear political mindset that speaks to us today and that helped bring about change at the time,” says Denevi. “As a freelance journalist he really had the chance to be present for these world-changing moments. He had an ear for history, moments that might in retrospect define not just a year or an event but a kind of segment of American history, and that’s something that’s been overlooked in his writing.”
Freak Kingdom doesn’t bypass Thompson’s work and personal life during that decade; Denevi explores the reporting and writing of his best-known books and articles and his ill-fated run for sheriff in Colorado. But starting with distraught letters Thompson wrote after Kennedy’s death, the book chronicles, in absorbing day-by-day detail, how Thompson intersected with history more than some may recall. He witnessed the rise of hard-line conservatism at the 1964 GOP convention that nominated Barry Goldwater. While covering the 1968 presidential campaign, Thompson saw firsthand the chaos of the Democratic convention when a Chicago cop gutted him with a billy club, even after Thompson flashed his press badge. Thompson also found himself in a sedan with Nixon and some aides, talking, of all things, football.
In Nixon, Thompson saw everything that could potentially go wrong with America and grappled with it in his writing. “One thing he was never wrong about was Richard Nixon,” Denevi says. “From the very beginning, from the first time he saw him, he was always right about Richard Nixon. And he always sensed Nixon’s sinister ability to really warp the American system in his favor.” In 1972, Thompson became an advocate for the Democratic candidate, George McGovern, and the two strategized in hotel swimming pools — and he was devastated when McGovern lost badly.
Denevi describes what he calls the “Faustian bargain” Thompson made when he began taking ADHD-combatting Dexedrine in 1964. “Instead of changing the more detrimental aspects of his life — terrible sleep rhythms, drinking all day every day since he was 14 — he could use the Dexedrine to either recover and to push himself beyond and to in some sense make it a matter of will instead of a matter of personal limitations,” he says. Denevi was able to see one of Thompson’s’ infamous pills when a friend showed him a letter from Thompson complete with one of the little orange tablets still taped to it.
Denevi, who suffers from ADHD himself and wrote a 2014 book (Hyper) about the condition, takes Adderall, which isn’t nearly as potent as Dexedrine, to maintain his own work schedule. But he could sense how such drugs could overwhelm Thompson. “You have to be careful, in that too much of it would be unhealthy,” he says. “I take Adderall to work. I don’t take it to go out and have fun in Las Vegas. I take Adderall to get the writing and research that I needed to get done. There’s a zero-sum equation to any drug that’s going to improve your ability to do something. Eventually you’ll have to pay the price for that.”
Even though Nixon’s presidency would collapse, Denevi argues that Thompson wasn’t uplifted by his arch-enemy’s fall. In another moment of synchronicity, Thompson was swimming in the Watergate hotel pool when news of the Democratic headquarters break-in made the news. But by the time of the Watergate hearings (which he initially just watched on TV but wound up covering for Rolling Stone), Thompson was overloaded and taking pills, alcohol and now cocaine. “When Nixon left, Thompson has that beautiful passage about how it’ll never the same in Washington — the circus is leaving town,” he says. “A light had kind of gone out of the world in terms of inspiration and the fight he was fighting had, in a sense, ended. He still wrote some very beautiful essays after that, but he never seemed able to sustain the same book length.”
What would Thompson have made of Trump? “Thompson was an iconoclast, so you never know how he would have responded to this moment,” Denevi cautions. “But I believe he would be voicing with a kind of clarion call not just that our system is fragile but that it’s up to us to protect it and contribute in a manner that protects and upholds Jeffersonian democracy. He believed in an open and free press and the Constitution, and he saw one of the biggest threats in American history, a president who went so far beyond his powers.”