Sunday, January 31, 2010


Hell's Angels

This was Dr. Hunter S. Thompson's first book, published as he was arriving on the journalistic map in the 60s. I was interested to see how much of his style perfected in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, and The Great Shark Hunt was endemic to his writing. Hell's Angels is a great deal more journalistic and straight than his later writings, but you can absolutely see pieces of his manic existence, sometimes only alluded to in passing. The strange quotations, casual mentions of drug use and alcoholism, the rantish meanderings that begin in confusion and end up on another plane of understanding all the while discussing very real and important things... they're all there. But he also relies more on traditional storytelling techniques, and the mishmash works well.

He became close with some members of the Hell's Angels motorcycle club in San Francisco and Oakland, and decided to write about it. His presentation of the Angels seems schizophrenic. They define themselves as being Against Everything. They have no qualms about escalating conflicts, both imagined and mundane, into raging brawls, massive property destruction, and gang rapes. They just want to be able to ride their choppers (stripped down Harley Davidson motorcycles) wherever they want, drink at any bar serving beer and whiskey, steal what they need, find girls that'll have them, not bathe or shave, dress in leather with their "colors" (patches and insignia designating them as Hell's Angels outlaws), and not get disrespected. In this sense they are compared to Wild West Outlaws and John Dillinger types.

They are also artists in the caretaking of their bikes, retrofitting them, ensuring they run perfectly, and only house what they need on a bike. They do need a big frame though, and HST describes their view of other motorcycles thusly:

"The little bikes may be fun, like the industry people say, but Volkswagens are fun too, and so are BB guns."

He also describes them as descendants of Scots-Irish downtrodden Appalachian fighting people, in the tradition of that book Albion's Seed, Jim Webb's book Born Fighting, Malcolm Gladwell's explanation of its "honor" culture, or this blog post. Thompson follows the group's migration to the west coast, where they found the end of the road. Their descendants, after fighting in WWII, still had places they wanted to explore and things to prove. Going on "runs" to the middle of nowhere to be alone with friends, drink to insanity, and break things seemed to be the only activity that sated those bottled-up needs. As he describes: "There is the same sulking hostility toward 'outsiders,' the same extremes of temper and action, and even the same names, sharp faces and long-boned bodies that never look quite natural unless they are leaning on something."

There's a point when they're lounging on a lake in Inland California on a run, and an expensive platoon of motorboats arrive on the other side of the inlet. The people piloting them are handsome frat boys and gorgeous model type girls, playfully lounging in the sun and clear water. At the same time:

"A hundred feet away, on the other side of the inlet, the Hell's Angels lounged in all their grubby splendor. There were no sun tans, bikinis, or waterproof watches on that side, The outlaws stood on the rocky beach in jockey shorts, wet Levi's and matted beards that made their skin seem pale and moldy. Several were splashing around in the water with their clothes on."

You wonder where this kind of apathetic, negative, mutually destructive, suspicious slice of the population has gone - Hell's Angels aren't the menace they were in the 60's. But it's just changed into another generation, and grown. Here's HST again:

"Their lack of education has not only rendered them completely useless in a highly technical economy, but it has also given them the leisure to cultivate a powerful resentment ... and to translate it into a destructive cult..."

Recognize this resentment? Go to any political blog post and read the comments. Turn on Fox News and wait for a "Special Comment" or Glenn Beck's show. Go to a Tea Party protest. It's all there. And some have started to spread an educated veneer onto the resentment, while others have inexplicably tied right-wing religious politics to it, while others have forced a strange marriage of this resentment with the political priorities of the super-rich. Whenever this angry zeitgeist can be harnessed and shoehorned into the voting booth through scare tactics and misrepresentations, anyone can get elected, because there are a lot of people the feel left behind in this country. I wonder if this is a uniquely American thing, or if other countries have similar movements, but in different forms.

Anyhow, Thompson surprised me with the clarity and thoughtful analysis he brought to this book - along with his usual wild ride. Definitely recommended because it manages to jump through the anachronisms and speaks to certain parts of our present sociological existence.

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