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The concept of the “motorcycle outlaw” was as uniquely American as jazz. Nothing like them had ever existed. In some ways they appeared to be a kind of half-breed anachronism, a human hangover from the era of the Wild West.

Today I got my right thumb caught in a car door. Thankfully I did not also succeed in breaking the bone, but it did promptly swell to an impressive size. As a result I chose to rely on my trusty Kindle this afternoon for my book, with my delicate thumb not being capable of handling a bound spine.

Hunter S. Thompson was always a touchstone of my early twenties. His writing attracts a certain kind of reader – and many a late-night party became more fun once I used my Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas radar to identify other fans in the room. I even chose a Ralph Steadman skin for my Kindle. It is a book which inspires a near fanatical devotion, with the style of writing ‘gonzo‘, it defined seen as a right-on study of how the world really is.

Then Hunter S. Thompson shot himself in the head while his family were in another room.

Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcyle Gangs set Thompson on the path that would eventually lead to Fear and Loathing. The later gonzo excesses are not quite as evident, with the book focusing mainly on the widespread media hysteria that followed the Hells Angels biker gangs in and around California. Over a number of months Thompson himself interviewed groups of Angels to get their side of the story, although by the time he was in their company, various chapters of of the gang had made a business of selling their insights on life on the road.

Such a confusion of fear and infame was inevitable. Early in the media’s coverage of the biker phenomenon, Hedda Hopper forged an indelible link between the real-world gangs and the 1953 Marlon Brando movie The Wild One. As it turned out the Hells Angels loved the film as much as the Mafia loves The Godfather. What they were less impressed with was hysterical reports of biker gangs invading country towns, ripping off stores and committing gang rape.

Thompson describes the broadly defined code of ethics of the various gangs he meets. They have a hostile relationship with most police, especially in the wake of the disastrous media coverage, but see themselves as patriots, fiercely anti-communist, even at one point offering their services as a black ops death squad in Vietnam to President Lyndon Johnson. When he obtains a bike of his own, Thompson even comes to believe that the Angels’ claims of harassment form the police are not just paranoid delusions spurred on by massive drug intake – after years of dangerous driving in a car, it only takes three weeks on a bike for his licence to be revoked.

The account culminates with an all-night drinking binge at Bass Lake, with seasonal tourists fleeing the advance of the bikes and deputies placing themselves between the boozing bikers and armed local vigilantes whipped into a frenzy.

To my mind the most enjoyable part of the book was discovering that Kenneth Anger‘s film Scorpio Rising was marketed years after its initial release as a Hells Angels movie. Thompson’s despair when his cache of beer is absconded with by the Angels is another highpoint.

What I did find, however, is that I have grown strangely tired of Thompson. Gonzoism here is not so much a right-on attitude of journalistic integrity, but a method of inserting the author into the narrative as a devil-may-care hero. This is a suspicion in part inspired by the writer’s own blinkered, Horatio Alger-like love of American individualism. Whereas Thompson enjoys shining on political hypocrisy, his discussion of rape in relation to the Hells Angels is quite disturbing, on the one hands denouncing fraudulent claims against gang member and then justifying legitimate instances as just spontaneous sex orgies.

The conclusion itself dovetails neatly with a sudden influx of sentiment, once again reinforcing the notion of this sympathetic account of the Angels as a construct. The book itself is also frustratingly overwritten, the epic tale of Thompson’s beer being stolen occupying far more pages than it is worth. And I say that as a lover of the hops – including this Ralph Steadman illustrated variety.

A disappointment overall.


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