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Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga

Hunter S. Thompson makes me want to be a journalist. As with some other larger-than-life writers, I’m not sure where the legend ends and he begins, but since I’m interested in his writing and not his person, it doesn’t much matter. His love for language and his discipline are especially inspiring. I read somewhere, while was working as a copy-boy, he typed A Farewell to Arms and The Great Gatsby to feel their structure, and to understand what those two writers were doing beneath the surface. That sort of dedication is like a medical student sneaking into funeral homes. The rhythm and cadence in Thompson’s work, his clean prose and love for words is enjoyable on its own and gives me yet another high target for my own writing.

Thompson’s work draws me in because it gives me intimate access to otherwise unknowable people and events; I can see things firsthand which occurred 25 years before I was born. He makes the ultra-violent, one-percenter, outlaw biker subculture a palatable, prodable entity I can understand—at least as much as any bystander.  I can experience Barger, Tiny, even Thompson himself. I can see what they do in the wild, why they do these things, and what the effects are.

Thompson de-romanticizes the Hell’s Angels. Even at the time, after the initial panic had calmed, some groups began adopting them, thinking the Angels were tame revolutionaries. They invited the Angels to hip parties where the women were enamored of the their outlaw status and the men wanted to talk about isolation and alienation and all that heavy stuff that made the Angels tear off on massive, howling motorcycles to pillage the California countryside. The hipsters mostly gave that up after the Angels beat them up at a few demonstrations.

The Angels are a brutal menace—not Robin Hood or Marlon Brando or anyone you can predict or control. Life with the Angels is not an action movie: when somebody gets stomped, real ribs break; there are lasting consequences. But the Angels disregard all thought of the future, or the effects of their decisions. Their modus operandi is entirely hedonistic, moment-to-moment, though intense loyalty to the club presides. Most of them don’t keep steady jobs, they live for being Angels: for the runs, the binges, and the parties. They take the premise of “all for one, one for all” and extend it to barbarism. If you strike an Angel, all other Angels will come to his aid—whether he was right or not, whether he hit you first; regardless of provocation, once one Angel is offended, all Angels are offended. And they will hurt you in interesting new ways.

Thompson’s journalism—good journalism in general—also sheds light on the culture of the times. Each piece he writes—Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, ditto on the Campaign trail ’72, The Great Shark Hunt—each of these is about more than the subject at hand. He speaks about small things in a way we can extrapolate to larger statements about our culture, and about people in general. His treatment of the Hell’s Angels is no different. They’re a prototype, he says. The Hell’s Angels aren’t an anomaly, they’re the future.

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