Ballantine, 1967 (1996 reprint), 273 pages, C$17.00 tpb, ISBN 978-0-345-41008-5
Let’s face it: most books have a useful life measured in years, if not months. Once they’ve been removed from bookstore shelves, put out-of-print and remaindered, books quickly fade away from public attention. Non-fiction withers away even less gracefully than fiction: The world outside the book evolves, leaving the subject behind as a historical curiosity.
Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels is part of a tiny minority of enduring non-fiction titles. Still in print forty years after publication, it’s still being purchased and read today. Two reasons explain why: First, it’s a book by Hunter S. Thompson, a writer whose legend burns just as brightly today than in 1967. Second, it’s a crackling good read about a fascinating subject that remains of interest today.
For if the hippies of San Francisco’s mid-sixties have faded away, the Hell’s Angels that flourished at the same time are still very much active today. Their outlaw legend has shifted somewhat: People (especially in French Canada) now tend to associate their illicit activities with organized drug-running and biker wars rather than the anarchic hooliganism of their early years. But the mystique endures just as it did in 1965, the year when Thompson wrote his first article on the San Francisco-area Hell’s Angels and ended up up riding with them for another year while researching his book-length narrative. (The ride ended when, as Thompson describes in the gut-punch last chapter, he himself was “stomped” and beaten by the Angels.)
One of the reasons why Hell’s Angels remains so readable today has to do with Thompson himself: Though he calls the Angels stupid and ignorant, there’s no doubt that he has considerable sympathy for the outlaws and the way they can get away with what they do. Thompson himself wasn’t an entirely straight arrow at the time, and fans will recognize typical Thompson stories as he describes how he “somehow” ended up firing a shotgun outside his apartment at night. Thompson, in fact, spends more time decrying mainstream treatment of biker gangs (calling the contemporary media coverage woefully ignorant, sensationalist and patronizing) than he does condemning the Angels.
By living with the gang for a year, Thompson also manages to understand and describe them better than anyone else at the time: His exploration of the psycho-sexual dynamics of the Angels is brutally frank (even today) and completely engrossing. The portrait he draws up is that of a familiar type: men who can’t find a place in mainstream society, hanging together in a mutual support group. When Hunter ends his book with dire predictions that motorcycle gangs are part of the way American is going to become in the future, history proves him right.
But socio-political analysis aside, the best moments of this great book end up being the first-hand descriptions of a Hell’s Angels run on a small California community, as both Angels and local authorities are practically begging for a confrontation. It ends up being a non-story, with Thompson stuck in the middle, but it’s also a segment that would mark a turning point for him: Hell’s Angels may not be completely gonzo journalist, but it’s certainly a prototype of articles in which the process of getting the story becomes the story.
In-between, you get passages describing the pure thrill of pushing a motorcycle so close to the edge that you can’t see beyond the next turn in the road. You get a sense of San Francisco during the sixties. You get Hunter S. Thompson as a young man trying out his full powers as a writer. But more than that, you get a crackling good read, even forty years after publication. This is a book that has endured for good reasons: It’s a minor classic in its own way, and it’s well worth picking up.
[June 2009: I wouldn’t go so far as to call Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test an essential companion to Thompson’s Hell’s Angels, but it does offer another look at mid-sixties San Francisco and in discussing Ken Kesey’s psychedelic lifestyle, often overlaps with Thompson’s motorcycle gang. (In fact, Thompson is acknowledged as having provided audio tapes to Wolfe.) But modern readers will trip over the most annoying thing about The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which is Wolfe’s stream-of-altered-consciousness prose style: Impressionistic at beast, unreadable at worst. If it does a fine job at portraying a particular mindset, it also graphically shows why the hippies went away since then. Still, patient readers will find a few nuggets of interest in the depiction of the times, as well as random factoids and references. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is referenced casually, as is Clarke’s (unattributed) Childhood’s End. Plus there’s the fascinating etymological tidbit that “bummer” (as in: “a bad trip”) was adopted by the hippies from the Hell’s Angels slang for, yes, “a bad trip” –you can figure out what part of the anatomy hurts after a bad motorcycle ride. Ultimately, though, much of Wolfe’s book is simply too difficult to read to be truly rewarding. Of historical interest.]