by Hugh Gilmore
I've been reading some books lately about the ways people act when they're part of a crowd. Two of them I've described in these pages recently: "Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds," by Charles Mackay (1841) and "A Journal of the Plague," by Daniel Defoe (1722). Both books were written by omniscient authors standing at a distant time and place from the masses they describe.
For today's subject, however, we veer – careen? – to a book written by an embedded author who studied quite horrible people, the Hells Angels, close enough to smell them, travel with them, parade with them and get beat up by them. Yes, the father of Gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thompson.
Thompson's "Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs" first appeared in 1968. Outlaw motorcycle gangs were not the familiar social memes then that they are now. Thompson first wrote about them in an article published in The Nation in 1965 titled "The Motorcycle Gangs: Losers and Outsiders." Several book offers came from publishers after that, one of them financing Thompson's quest to see what the Angels were like from punching distance.
The first third of the book version of "Hell's Angels" is an accumulation of research based on newspaper clippings and court transcripts. It's a chore to read through them all when you're waiting for the action (acerbic intelligence meets Neanderthals – on wheels), but the background details do illustrate the creation of the hysteria that accompanied the Angels' every public move back in their myth-making days. Once Thompson does insinuate himself, however, and rides along with the gang, the book becomes compelling, morbidly outrageous, and disgusting. What keeps it moving, however, is not the breaking of bottles and heads and laws, but the same keen observations and honesty that Thompson brought to all his writing. That, and his sarcastic humor.
For a while the Angels became regular "guests" at Hollywood parties among the cool in-crowd who considered themselves rebels at heart. After a while, however, the patina wore off – too much broken furniture, implied (or actual) physical violence and, too put it plainly: bad odors. During this time, they also became regulars at the novelist Ken Kesey's Merry Prankster "parties," to use a euphemism.
There is never a moment, however, when Thompson believes he's keeping company with the romantic, heroic loner who represents an American ideal. He writes near the end:
"To see the Hell’s Angels as caretakers of the old “individualist” tradition “that made this country great” is only a painless way to get around seeing them for what they really are—not some romantic leftover, but the first wave of a future that nothing in our history has prepared us to cope with. The Angels are prototypes. Their lack of education has not only rendered them completely useless in a highly technical economy, but it has also given them the leisure to cultivate a powerful resentment."
And thus, he says, they would come into a town, as so many fringe groups do, filled with a feeling of having been screwed by life from the time they born and "determined to get total retaliation in the form of random revenge-taking "that outraged the public's sense of decency.
Not that that same public, or the even the country itself, escapes Thompson's scorn:
"But in a society with no central motivation, so far adrift and puzzled with itself that its President feels called upon to appoint a Committee on National Goals, a sense of alienation is likely to be very popular—especially the so-called American Way which begins to seem like a dike made of cheap cement, with many more leaks than the law has fingers to plug.
In the end he summarizes his time with the outlaw gang in this way:
"Their sloppy histrionics and inane conversations can be interesting for a few hours, but beyond the initial strangeness, their everyday scene is as tedious and depressing as a costume ball for demented children. There is something pathetic about a bunch of men gathering every night in the same bar, taking themselves very seriously in their ratty uniforms, with nothing to look forward to but the chance of a fight or [a brief time with] some drunken charwoman."
His closing summation: the trip was a "bummer." But the book is not. Rereading it half a century later, long after the initial fascination with the subject has passed, it's still a classic of American nonfiction. And Thompson himself is a one of those rare American originals – a self-invented, incredibly contrary genius.
Hugh Gilmore is the former Books & Features editor of the Providence Eagle. He lives in Chestnut Hill.