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This Isn't Your Typical Thompson
on July 19, 2004
Having read Hell's Angels, A Strange and Terrible saga at least eight times starting in 1968, I never cease to be amazed at the criticisms leveled against it in the ensuing years, the major one being that it's not a Fear and Loathing book. I'm pretty sure it was originally a (very) long article written for The Nation magazine. The Nation ain't Rolling Stone, kids. If you are coming to this book expecting Hunter's usual blend of fact, fiction, and hallucinations, you will be sorely disappointed. "Gonzo journalist" though he is, the operative part there was journalist. He had, after all, developed a rather strong food habit since birth, and had no desire to kick it. He explores the Angels' mystique by letting them provide the history, their then current attitudes, and their lives as outlaws outside the system. He then blends research and his observations gleaned from riding with them for the better part of a year into the mix, producing a riveting book.
Since the recent death of Marlon Brando, his movie The Wild One has gained a new audience; it is in fact based on an incident Hunter chronicles in this book, the Rape of Hollister. Oddly, nothing remotely similar to the movie happened there, and some other legendary "motorcycle riots" such as the one at Laconia, New Hampshire, weren't initially riots at all, and certainly didn't involve the Angels, though the media portrayed these events as the brink of Armageddon and gave middle America yet another "dangerous group running wild in their midst," something else to freak over in addition to Communists hiding under every rock.
The Angels became, over time, what people expected them to be. Hunter recognized this transformational quality in his own profession: if other reporters, from respected national magazines, could make up stories or at least embellish them enough to freak people out, he could do it better! What you will find in Hell's Angels is great reporting, an unflinching look at real wildness and personal risk, and the genesis of what would become Hunter's trademark style.
If for no other reason, fans of Tom Wolfe, Ken Kesey, or the "Beats" (including the real "Dean Moriarty" from On the Road, still alive at the time, still driving, and hanging out with the Pranksters) should read this book for the legendary Acid Test at Kesey's place at La Honda when Hunter and the Angels showed up (by invitation, as Kesey was burning to meet them). In a singularly rare occurrence, we find two journalists just before they became instant icons writing about the same private party, rather than, say an inauguration, or awards ceremony, or some other public spectacle; the "public" was definitely not invited to La Honda. Compare Hunter's account of that weekend with the one that appears in the Electric Kool Aid Acid Test; you might just be surprised by who is the more "legitimate" writer.
I obviously love this book and highly recommend it, but again, it isn't FEAR and LOATHING WITH THE HELL'S ANGELS; it's far too serious a situation for that, as you will discover upon reading it. (And if that idea somehow still escapes you, watch Gimme Shelter, the great Maysles brothers' documentary of the Stones free concert at Altamont; if THAT doesn't do it, go down to your local biker bar and kick over a few choppers; you'll deserve what you get.)