Saturday, 18 July 2009

Review: Hell's Angels, Hunter S. Thompson (1966)

This book is not gonzo. I think it is important to state this at the outset as Hunter S. Thompson's reputation is stapled firmly to the label. In the recent documentary on his life, the filmmakers showed the erection of a giant gonzo symbol in the Colorado landscape: a fist clenched around an arcane symbol. The gonzo symbol is the product of Thompson's mature mind. In the beginning, things were very different.

If we think back to the film, we recall that Thompson, in the years leading up to the publication by Random House of Hell's Angels, was a struggling journalist. Eager to put food on the table for his family, the young Thompson found an ideal object of scrutiny. A confirmed news junkie, Thompson focussed his attention on a modern phenomenon, one that was partly a product of popular culture, and that arose in the years following demobilisation after the Second World War.

It is salutory to remember that Hell's Angels appeared in the same year as Turman Capote's In Cold Blood. Unlike Norman Mailer, who would model his aspirations in writing The Executioner's Song on Capote's success, Thompson was doing it off his own bat.

For Hell's Angels is a straight exemplum of the literary journalism genre. The freakish, unexpected and feather-ruffling hi-jinx of later, 'gonzo', pieces is just not to be found here, except in a rudimentary form. In this sense, the book can be considered an early example of gonzo, but it lacks the ethereal fire of true gonzo, the head-spinning, self-referential, blazing sallies of the later format.

The book takes a long look at the San Francisco area in the early 1960s and particularly that aspect of it that had the bikie gangs at its centre. The Oakland chapter of the Angels, headed by Sonny Barger, are a world away from the crim-minded, modern type of bikie gang. There was no money. There was no glory. There was only the membership, loyalty, unquestioning allegiance, and a dogged resistance to 'straight' social norms.

Clearly, these elements of the Angels appealed to Thompson the man. In fact, in the absence of similarity of purpose, the book would not have been written. There are a lot of things about what the Angels do that Thompson does not condone. But the fundamental likeness of tendency marking out the space between where the journalist stood in relation to his (willing) subjects is of salient interest to the modern reader.

Thompson displays an enormous ability to conquer large amounts of information as he sketches out where the Angels stood in relation to the law and general society. He also whoops it up (inside) as he accompanies the bikers on their forays into the California countryside. He treads uneasily and carefully around the clusters of Angels slumped over their beers. He yelps in amazement at their resilience and capacity for fun. He wallows in the same muck but there's a diffference: Thompson always has a pen in his hand, a recorder taping, a line emerging in his forebrain.

The book is a monument. It sits up there alongside The Origin of Species as an artefact that all people should acquaint themselves with. It stands as a marker on the road to gonzo. It stands for all time as a celebration of the individual against mass-mindedness.

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