Thompson, Hunter S. (2009), Hell’s Angels, Penguin
Hell’s Angels, originally published in 1966, holds up remarkably well these days. It’s a wonderfully readable piece of journalism, exhibiting a singular literary voice finding its bearings and its author, Hunter S. Thompson, stands today as one of the most astonishing American literary figures of this past century. His vast work is yet to be collected and properly editorially assessed, but at least it’s out there, in many great editions, and almost annually something new is added. The most recent publication was a selection of his interviews, published as Ancient Gonzo Wisdom (highly recommended), and in 2012 the third and last volume of his letters, which has been delayed for a few years now, will hopefully be published. His work is political, it is both loud and tender, the work of a sensitive literary talent driven to the brink by a disintegrating country and the oppressive forces of the ‘silent majority’. Within less than ten years after seriously taking up journalism Thompson exploded onto the literary scene and evolved more and more into the brash, whiskey-swilling, gun-toting madman known the world over. Thompson traveled through his own and other countries, trying to assess the madness, the violence and hate that seemed to crop up everywhere; as a reaction to that he developed his signature style, ‘Gonzo Journalism’, or, as he called it “Total Subjectivity, as opposed to the bogus demand of Objectivity”. He is often carelessly lumped in with Mailer, Wolfe and Talese and the rest of the reactionary ‘New Journalism’ pack, when, in fact, his brand of genius is completely, unmistakably different. Thompson belongs to distinct literary tradition that includes writers like those of 19th century German romanticism. He does it, however, with an added strong dose of resentment and, well, loathing. Additionally, Thompson was, at least for a sizable portion of his literary career, an incredibly sharp and sober observer of the world around him, and a valuable commentator on culture and politics.
His best books are probably Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. In these two books he honed both his observations and his mastery of language and registers to a fine point. These are extraordinary achievements, among the finest achievements in journalistic writing in the 20th century, written with urgency, clarity and fantastic stylistic instincts. However, Thompson’s madcap persona with all its idiosyncrasies (immortalized as Uncle Duke by Garry Trudeau), the drugs, girls, and the later pressure of having to be the oddball, drinking whiskey, shooting his dozens of guns and making mad statements, all this fell back on his work and harmed its precision and even the urgent tone of much of it. The rest of his work, although it contains standout masterpieces like The Curse of Lono (1983) and Kingdom of Fear (2003), is less consistent, less overall fantastic. It really is those ten years between 1965 and 1975 that Thompson was at the top of his game, producing work that has entered the American literary canon long since. Hell’s Angels, his first book in that decade, is clearly the work of a writer still learning to use his voice, but it’s still a hell of a read, worth reading and rereading, worth thinking about and discussing. There’s a reason why this book keeps being reprinted in dozens of editions, and it’s not (or not only) its sensationalist subject matter. The book finds Thompson mingling with the infamous motorcycle gang, accompanying them on runs, following them to one of Ken Kesey’s legendary parties, hanging with them at bars. The central epiphanies, the turning points of the book are all buttressed or informed or even prompted by events witnessed by Thompson, although he has not participated in most described events in a book that is as more a history of the Hell’s Angels as it is a first hand account of their dealings. That said, Thompson’s use of his own experience is strategically placed to provide a sound, personal foundation to a slightly meandering narrative.
Hell’s Angels consists of four chapters and a postscript. The first chapter and the postscript are introductions and conclusions to the story of Thompson’s encounter with the gang. Technically speaking, the first chapter in particular is wonderfully done, conveying at once a general impression of the men on their bikes, their particular impression on Thompson and in his life, and a sense of cultural context. This first, short chapter, titled “Roll em, boys” contains in nuce much of the structural complexities and themes of the book to come; it feels like a finished, painstakingly crafted text. This, incidentally, is true for the entire book. It wasn’t until around 1972 that Thompson abandoned his careful drafting. This book is amazingly well wrought, merging disparate elements like newspaper articles, experiences and historical excurses into a rollicking, coherent narrative. If you come to this book looking for the slightly mad Thompson of his later work, you’re not going to find him here. The author of this work is a thoughtful, ambitious and thoroughly talented young man walking a thin line between outrageous experiences and sober research. There is no element here that feels accidental, nothing out of place; every description and every phrase is purposeful and effective. There is something excessive about Thompson’s post-1972 work, which is part of an attempt to provide a non-reductive view of the world, a reporting that contains all the chaos within the limits of an essay or a whole book. That is not yet the case in this book. The author of Hell’s Angels clearly worked from the assumption that you can impose a frame and a narrative on something like “[t]he Menace, […], like Genghis Khan on an iron horse, a monster steed with fiery anus”. The language is impassioned, literary and sober, depending on the section or chapter. Except for the postscript, every chapter is a mixture of lived events and cultural and historical criticism. The two-page postscript describes the event that put an end to Thompson’s close association with the gang (this is expounded upon in this unforgettable TV interview). The longest of the chapters in between first chapter and postscript, “The Hoodlum Circus and The Statutory Rape of Bass Lake” is the most impressive and has remained the most controversial section of the whole book.
It’s the most impressive because, 100 pages into the book, this is the first extended description of Thompson’s year with the biker gang. At its center is the annual 4th of July run, a “run” being a mass outing of one or more motorcycle gang on a particular weekend of boozing, playing and fighting. The impression of a horde of bearded, black-clad motorcycle enthusiasts descending on some small Midwest town is fearsome, and in 1964, when the 4th of July run takes place that Thompson took part in, the locals in Bass Lake, where that year’s destination was, are forewarned, and were armed to the teeth. The run allows Thompson to explain the group mechanisms active in the Hell’s Angels and also to show how at that time regular people, cops and the gang members interacted. As everywhere else in the book, this chapter is only roughly linear, jumping to different events that happened before and after the run, explaining cultural backgrounds and specific prejudice. One of those explanations, and probably the most extensive one, as well as the one that made the book controversial, is centered on the topic of sex and rape. The Hell’s Angels are portrayed as insatiable purveyors of sex in various forms. They are casually sexual in contact with one another, but what’s an issue is that they regularly gang rape women. It is uncomfortable to read through a long, repeated account of abuse directed at women, and to have to listen to the Angels’ ridiculous self-important defensive explanations. What’s worse is that in many cases, Thompson appears to be standing close by, his tape recorder turned on, his journalist’s ears twitching, doing nothing. The book itself also contains no condemnation of this sexual practice. All this is difficult to read, but it is, critics often assure us, somewhat cushioned by the general air of disapproval that swathes the whole book. Thompson makes it clear that he does not agree with the vaguely right wing, misogynist, violent attitude that defines much of what the Hell’s Angels stand for. But he doesn’t condemn them except in some strategic instances, because they are not the (only) enemy in his sights. This trade-off of ‘real’ enemies vs. actually observed victims is itself violently misogynist in structure and makes this book, like many other instances in Thompson’s work, deeply disturbing to the reader.
Unlike a lot of his later work, and despite the impression that the past two paragraphs might have conveyed, the participation of the author in the events described in the book is actually much less central. At its heart, Hell’s Angels is arguably less about the havoc wrought by the bearded, carelessly violent gang members, than it is about the narrative, the evolving legend of the Hell’s Angels, engineered by lazy and bigoted journalists and lazy and bigoted local politicians. This is not to say that Thompson approves of the methods of the gang he observes. He does not. But the intellectual focus of the book is still on the distortion created by the national and local press, and the effect this has on local communities and the Hell’s Angels themselves. At one point, late in the book, he writes
I was not surprised that the eight articles gave eight different viewpoints on the riot, because no reporter can be on every scene and they get their information from different people. But it would have been reassuring to find a majority agreement on something as basic as the number of arrests; it would have made the rest of the information easier to live with.
This passage, and others like it, displays a disappointment with his colleagues that provided fertile grounds for the journalistic cynicism that completely pervades his book about the 1972 presidential campaign, wherein he gleefully recounts facts and rumors he made up and spread through the newsroom. By contrast, Hell’s Angels is conscientious in its use of facts and numbers, and frequently compares public and journalistic rhetoric with the facts on file, a concern that was front and center in his work as early as 1965, when he published a newspaper article in The Nation (read part of it here) about the gang and their alleged exploits. In his book, Thompson quotes Kierkegaard, who said that “[t]he daily press is the evil principle of the modern world“, and yet the book itself is a masterpiece of journalism; this is not a contradiction. The attack on the ‘daily press’ is of course not an attack on all journalistic endeavors, but an attack on the outrage machinery that is fueled by politicians and journalists alike, a machine that enforces a strict (and sometimes irrational) moral code on everyone by steering public opinion in the right direction. Thompson shows how politicians and journalists support each other in building a narrative that has surprisingly little connection to the world of facts and figures. This is impressive, and always well done. But he doesn’t stop there.
It’s the peculiar nature of the Hell’s Angels that allows him to show how these narratives then influence the world outside, not just by turning the population against the invading motorcyclists. They also affect the Hell’s Angels themselves. In an early chapter, Thompson points out to what extent the Hell’s Angels were a product both of scaremongering journalism and of popular culture. Apart from the influence that films like Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels had, a veteran gang member is quoted as saying “We were all Marlon Brando”, describing the effect of the 1953 film The Wild One on early 1950s motorcycle groups. That film itself is based on the so-called Hollister riots, a 1947 motorcycle rally that got out of control. The Hollister riots were greatly exaggerated by the press, in particular Life magazine, and were thus turned into material befitting a sensationalist movie. But here is where Thompson’s definition of his own work and of journalism enters the picture. Journalists like the ones working for Life, who pretend to present a sober account of the facts, can and should be held up to these standards. After all, there’s a whole poetics of journalism writing based around the use of tenses and phrases that create just that impression of objectivity. Thompson’s take on this has two aspects. On the one hand he points out how so much of mainstream journalism supports political narratives, pursuing a narrow agenda, instead of being ‘objective’. On the other hand, he rejects the basic idea of journalistic objectivity e vestigio and instead pursues a very subjective kind of journalism, one that is open and honest about the place of the writer within his narrative and the wider framework of truth and objectivity. Something that he would manage more seamlessly in his later work is still a very obvious affair in this book: he takes pains showing us not just where he was in events he describes. He also turns the use of sources into a narrative, discussing his tapes, his research and talks with outlaws. There is no information in this book that isn’t accounted for and completely tied to its author. There is no pretense of an objectivity beyond what limits the author has.
And yet, this is no weakness. The example of The Wild One is instrumental here. In the same section that I just mentioned, he closes by saying that the movie,
despite an admittedly fictional treatment, was an inspired piece of film journalism. Instead of institutionalizing common knowledge (…), it told a story that was only beginning to happen and which was inevitably influenced by the film.
In all of Thompson’s written output, there is really no better summary of his poetics than this. It well describes what he was to focus on from then on: telling a story that is bigger than the event actually described, a story that tells a larger truth, and a story that does not just repeat the same old mendacious narratives. The exaggeration that he often uses is not a deviation from truth, but it serves to put what’s really true into sharp focus, which probably reminds most of us of Adorno’s claims in his classic “Kulturindustrie” essay. Within the searing pages of Hell’s Angels, Hunter S. Thompson isn’t yet the genius writer that he would turn into a few years later, but he’s damn close. The book is a fantastic read of course, written and constructed by one of the biggest and smartest literary talents of his time. But it also shows the direction that his and others’ work would be taking soon. It contains the beginning of an age in its beautiful and clear pages. There are so many reasons to read this book. Pick one. Read it.
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