Simon & Schuster, 2003, 354 pages, C$24.00 tp, ISBN 0-684-87324-9
Given the apocalyptic streak running through Hunter S. Thompson’s life-long work (after all, even Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a foreboding meditation on the gone-away sixties), it makes perfect sense that he would have been reinvigorated by the cataclysmic tone of the post-2001 era. So it is that Kingdom of Fear shows him fully settled in his cranky-sage-from-the-Colorado-mountains role, hurtling invectives at everyone and muttering darkly about the future of the republic. It doesn’t necessarily make the book any more vital than any of his post-1980 work, but it certainly makes him a bit more interesting to read.
Not that this is always the case. True to his tendency to repeat his self-aggrandizing mythology, Hunter spends an awful lot of time repeating known stories. Kingdom of Fear is a collage of previously-published pieces, reprinted material about Thompson and a fair chunk of original material. But even the original material tends to run in circles: We get to hear, again, about his experiences running for Sheriff, or his 1990 arrest. He goes over his own biography at length, sometime illuminating periods of relative silence, but just as often rehashing stories read elsewhere. His writing tics also take on, more than ever, the appearance of self-indulgence in-between gratuitous substitution of ampersands in place of the common “and”. Also typical of Thompson’s overall oeuvre is the incoherence of the book, which flits from theme to theme without much use for signposts.
At other times, disappointments are rife. Kingdom of Fear is the only book, to my knowledge, in which Thompson writes more than briefly about his experience in San Francisco at the end of the eighties (working as a figurehead “night manager” at a strip club) or his travels to Cuba and Grenada. But even then, we don’t get much more than a few pages: The Caribbean trips are heavily fictionalized, while most of the San Francisco material seems to have been kept in the still-unpublished, perhaps never-written The Night Manager/Polo is my Life.
Other bits fare better. Thompson saw early on the consequences of the national panic that gripped his country in the wake of 9/11, and his savage denunciations of the Bush administration ended up being more accurate than anyone was willing to admit in 2003. For him, the whole War on Terror era feels familiar; a return to the worst days of the sixties, perhaps even to 1964 Chicago where he, as a reporter, was beaten by police. Nixon being dead, Thompson found no problems in saying that Bush was worse than Nixon. As usual, Thompson’s style may be repetitive, but it still carries a certain power at shorter lengths.
But there are also a few gems here and there, finally reprinted in book form. The best is almost certainly a 1992 short story called “Fear and Loathing in Elko”, a dark piece mixing violent prose with caricatures of popular figures (including a “Judge” with an uncanny resemblance to Clarence Thomas) to produce a terrific short story. (So terrific, unfortunately, that a good chunk of its middle third was published as “Death of a Poet” in the tiny Screwjack anthology.) To give you an idea, it starts with a narrator running over a herd of sheep in the middle of a highway and then goes on to more stomach-churning material. Late in the book, “Fear and Loathing at the Taco Stand” fictionalizes his Hollywood experience and the way he met his second wife.
Having struggled against a fat and happy country in the eighties and nineties, Thompson seems to regain some of his relevance in times of crisis. Kingdom of Fear won’t do much to quieten critics who maintain that Thompson’s golden age was a bubble around 1972: For every good page, there seems to be ten filled with redundant filler or empty outrage. But this volume, published two years before Thompson’s suicide, also shows that he took to bad times as it was his natural environment: it comes as a validation of his predictions and his belief that most Americans were part of “the new dumb”. For someone who kept writing “When the Going Gets Weird, the Weird Turn Pro”, the post-9/11 era was practically a homecoming. It’s not hard to see how he would consider those years to be the final proof of his “death of the American dream” thesis. Sadly, this would prove to be nearly the end of the road for him: His next book, Hey Rube, would prove to be his last, and consist of collected columns about sports and politics.