Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Books: Hell's Angels, by Hunter S. Thompson

This book reads more like an extended newsmagazine article than a novel, but I don’t ultimately have a problem with that (um, it’s not a novel, duh. Okay, whatever.) Thompson seems to be less of an insider than one would expect (buying an English make rather than a Harley, and then driving a car to the Angel’s big run on the lake rather than a bike)—and eventually, in fact, ends his uncomfortable pseudo-friendship with them when he gets “stomped” (Angel for “beat up,” the way only Angels do it, which seems to involve literal stomping on the victim’s fallen body) and flees the scene, never returning.

Thompson’s angle is that of an outsider-insider perspective; he does a careful reading (and quoting) of media to demonstrate that the Angels’ reputation usually preceded them; one or two stories, blown out of proportion by lazy journalists, created a mythic reputation that the biker gang then did their best to live up to—often failing even at that. The gonzo journalist manages to scrounge up enough street cred to hang with them at a few exclusive locations (the run on the lake being one, their favorite bar being another), talk to them about their reputation, and see firsthand whether they are as dangerous as they’re made out to be.

The portrait that eventually emerges is less scary than depressing—there’s an impulse, Thompson points out, to see the Angels as re-figured cowboys, heroes riding solo across the open plains. And yet, they subscribe to a very rudimentary group mentality, not unlike that of today’s street gangs or yesteryear’s KKK. They keep “mamas,” shared women who voluntarily become the sexual property of the Angels, and who are used, um, communally. They take as many of any kinds of drugs they can get their hands on, heedless of doses or compatibility, often not knowing what they’re taking at all. If these are heroes, they are heroes for a world in need of therapy; if they are monsters, they are monsters in a world that is eerily sterile, if comfortably safe.

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