Saturday, June 25, 2016

Of monsters or men


Hunter S. Thompson, for all that I adore him, was a hot mess. He got himself into dangerous messes on a regular basis, dabbled in a terrifying array of interesting chemicals, and was fascinatingly glib about the things he was exposed to.

Hell's Angels is Thompson's nonfiction novel about the titular motorcycle gang and his year's experience of hovering in the sidelines of their subculture. It's played fairly straight, certainly seeming to be more factual and realistic than the author's adventures in Fear and Loathing, and that makes it all the more disconcerting.

To be totally honest I don't know all that much about motorcycle gangs. There are plenty of clubs on the up-and-up in my area, and I know a large number of cyclists and try to give them lots of room to pass on the freeways (especially because California is the only state that still allows lane-splitting and too many Californians don't know that and try to cut cyclists off, which endangers the riders and the drivers around them); a member of the Vagos lived around the corner from me a couple of years ago but has since been convicted of dealing meth. Motorcycles are a part of my life, but not a big part, and motorcycle gangs are a very, very small part of the background of that - they seem almost quaint, like something that belongs to another time.

Which makes Hell's Angels, a book that documents the explosion to prominence of the gang, a very interesting read. It's a stark contrast with the reality that I'm living - the world that Thompson illustrates is one in which the Angels are roaring hellions whose name drives a cold spike of fear through the hearts of good, red-blooded Americans. But the most I've heard about them in the last few years is when they show up to block WBC protestors from military funerals. It's a marked contrast that leaves me with more questions than anything else. Thompson paints a picture of the group that shows mostly poor, uneducated, petty criminals who have an incredibly casual attitude toward rape and some aggressive racism hovering in the background - but of course it was written by a man who was in some ways a petty criminal in a time that had a very casual attitude toward certain kinds of rape and was aggressively racist.

There was a lot that I found repugnant here, both in the subject matter and its presentation. I can't see adults having sex with minors as anything other than rape, even if the minor claimed to consent (and especially when we're discussing large age differences and gang bangs); there's a thread of contempt for women in general that was off-putting and seems fairly common in Thompson's more bombastic moments; the kind of racism described in the Angels is revolting but made perplexing by the authorial voice that seems to be almost as bad to modern eyes (the tone used in discussions of the Watts Riots is similar to the racist tone that surrounded last year's Baltimore protests after the death of Freddie Gray, and we're well past the time that "negro" is an acceptable term for blacks). I suppose you can dismiss those issues as a product of the time, and certainly it's true that racism and sexism were more open and obvious in the 1960s than they are today.

Other than those (significant) issues the book is an entertaining and well-crafted story with much more depth than you might expect from such an author on such a subject. Thompson's discomfort with the Angels is palpable but he's as drawn to them as the reader is to his story. There's a tremendous amount of sympathy in the book, as well as a good deal of humor (largely directed at the "panic" surrounding what was realistically a small motorcycle gang), and Thompson was a good writer, whatever other criticisms you can pin on him. The work is well crafted, full of unique voices and arranged in an atemporal, shifting structure that makes the plot seem like a dream forming from nothingness.

I'm very impressed with the technical craft of the book as well as Thompson's big brass balls for hanging out with the Hell's Angels long enough to get it written. I'm less impressed with some of the more unpleasant aspects of the culture it illustrates, though it does serve as a beautiful example of the fact that "the good old days" weren't really all that great.

     - Alli

Thompson, Hunter S. Hell's Angels. Ballantine Books. New York: New York. 1996. (1966).

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