Hunter S. Thompson
“The Angels don’t like to be called losers, but they have learned to live with it. “Yeah, I guess I am,” said one. “But you’re looking at one loser who’s going to make a hell of a scene on the way out.”
Another of the many books that I've been meaning to read for some time, Hell's Angels is the book that, upon publication, introduced the wider literary world to the talents and hell-raising attitude of the now-legendary Hunter S. Thompson. Now, almost fifty years after that book's publication, Hunter is obviously much more well-known for the iconic, genre-defining explosion of gonzo known as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the book with which ninety-nine percent of the author's fans discovered him (and through Terry Gilliam's cinema adaptation). I belong in that group, and Fear and Loathing made me realise immediately that I wouldn't be happy until I'd read Hunter's entire bibliography. From that bibliography, the entry which stood out most prominently as the book I felt most likely to further encapsulate the bizarrely magnificent style of Fear and Loathing is now the subject of my latest literary thoughts/ramblings.
Naturally it took me literally ten years to get around to reading Hell's Angels, in the meantime getting more of a fix from Hunter S. through collected editions of his many newspaper and magazine articles, such as The Great Shark Hunt and Generation of Swine. Those high-tempo drink and drug-fueled paperback collections gave me the fix I needed, but the itch remained. When it finally came time to read the lovely Penguin Modern Classics edition of Hell's Angels I ordered from Amazon, I was left with not a small amount of trepidation, powered by random comments I'd heard and read over the years suggesting that it wasn't actually particularly good, at least not by the author's standards.
For the first one hundred pages or so of Hell's Angels, I found myself in agreement with such negative criticism; Hell's Angels didn't seem particularly interesting. In hindsight, the reason for my slight dislike for and slow progress through the book was due to a seed of misapprehension planted in my mind so many years ago where I assumed that Hunter's inimitable style was something that had just jumped into the world, full formed, presumably with his first article. The idea of literature as a progressive chain absorbing its own influences, stewing in its own juices, replicating the adapt or die notions of evolution... these were concepts that didn't occur. The fact is that Hell's Angels, as the earliest Thompson book is naturally the book where his style was most primitive.
Spawned as a heavily extended magazine article for The Nation in 1965, Hell's Angels is a roughly chronological look at the world's most famous biker group through the early-to-mid sixties, where Thompson heavily analyses the group's public image across mainstream America in contrast with his own conclusions, made from essentially ingratiating himself in to their ranks.From the opening pages Thompson dives right in to the subject matter, with little to no thought in explaining the set-up. Details of the Angels he met and how he came to meet them are scattershot around the book, which helped delay the moments where I really began to understand the book. This is not gonzo journalism of the sort Thompson would excel in, but the early stages are very much there in places. After persevering through a multitude of quoted newspaper and magazine statements, used by Hunter to portray the media's supposed warped excessively negative opinion on the gang, I found the authors voice really came to life as he spent more time giving his (often painfully) honest opinions.
At the books conclusion, Thompson neither condemns nor condones the often brutal and always anti-social behaviour of many of the Angels, leaving the reader to contemplate their own opinion, all the while hinting that the issue was really a lot more complicated than that. I found the book to be very well balanced in length and tone, as well as very informative with the benefit of interesting subjects... but it still wasn't quite the Hunter S. Thompson I know. I don't wish to bash Hell's Angels at all (I gave it 4 stars on goodreads, rating fans) because it's one of the better pieces of extended journalism I've ever read (I even think I slightly prefer it to In Cold Blood) but the problem is that Thompson's later prose voice is so iconic and instantly recognisable that this earlier, tamer version lacks the spark I associate with the author. I'm aware that it's an unfair criticism to slate an author's earlier work for not holding the same quality as their work to come, but then I'm probably a pretty unfair reviewer. At any rate, I'm glad I finally got Hell's Angels off from my mental to-read pile, and even though it didn't quite live up to my former expectations as an adolescent, it was ultimately an interesting, satisfying read.