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Resting on his laurels

Kingdom of Fear
Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century
By Hunter S. Thompson

Simon & Schuster: 2003

This review first appeared in the May 21, 2003 issue of Fahrenheit San Diego.

There are few things in life that are sadder than seeing someone with real talent turning out crap just to get another check based on their rep.

"Kingdom of Fear" isn't the first time Hunter S. Thompson has fleeced his fans, nor is it the worst book he's written. But it certainly isn't anywhere near his best work – and the most aggravating part is that there's this smug streak running throughout, like the whole thing is a big joke.

This book is purported to be Thompson's life story; if not an autobiography, then at least a reminiscence. Instead, it's a collection of articles that mostly engage in name-dropping and repeated use of his patented phrases. But how many times can you read "Whoops"or "ho ho" before they lose the impact they once had? About 15 each by my count. And that barely gets you through the first story.

True, Thompson has been more celebrity than author the past few decades. But that hardly justifies tagging your fans for twenty-five bucks to read a collection of unfocused snippets with no overriding theme – other than the apparent reality that you were unable to sell these pieces anywhere else.

Okay, that last part may not be fair – or at least not accurate. Most of the articles in here have appeared elsewhere – in his newspaper columns, in various magazine articles, in "Screwjack," his hugely disappointing collection of three short stories.

Which isn't to say there are no moments of Thompson's former brilliance.

He briefly hits his stride in "Song of the Sausage Creature," a short narrative apparently taken from an article he wrote for Cycle World magazine in the mid-'90s about the Ducati 900 motorcycle:

"This is a shameful admission for a full-bore Café Racer, but let me tell you something, old sport: This motorcycle is simply too goddamn fast to ride at speed in any kind of normal road traffic unless you're ready to go straight down the centerline with your nuts on fire and a silent scream in your throat."

In "Fear and Loathing in Elko," a different version of the story "Death of a Poet" from "Screwjack," he has this passage describing his relationship with the police that recalls his salad days:

"They were probably nice people, and so was I – but we were not meant for each other. History had long since determined that. There is a huge body of evidence to support the notion that me and the police were put on this earth to do extremely different things and never to mingle professionally with each other, except at official functions, when we all wear ties and drink heavily and whoop it up like the natural, good-humored wild boys that we know in our hearts that we are."

But these moments of his unorthodox translucence are far too rare to justify reading this book, much less shelling out 25 clams for it. It's not his life story, it's an anthology – "The Great Shark Hunt" drawing on much weaker material.

Want to get into Thompson's head? Skip this book and buy his collections of letters; they do a superior job of fleshing out his life's journey, and are a better read.