A Look at Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson

Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga by Hunter S. Thompson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first book by Hunter S. Thompson but one that I had not read until very recently. Released in 1969 the book comes to mind with the death over the past few days of Ralph “Sonny” Barger, the driving force behind the Angels, starting as the head of the Oakland branch of the organization, and a prominent part of this book.

The book gives us a glimpse of the unique writing style that would so identify Thompson in the future. Thompson’s observations, and his style of presenting those observations, was always fascinating to me. We can see that talent here.

In advance of reading the book I looked over some of the criticism of the work and the subject matter. Was Thompson glorifying the outlaw group, and all of the criminal activity involved with the Hell’s Angels? I did not take it that way. Thompson hung with, and rode with the Hell’s Angels, (although he did not ride a Harley) He gives a relatively unvarnished view, with the Thompson touch, of the outlaws. Thompson did not go into the effort looking to write a condemnation, but rather to observe and understand the juxtaposition of the Angels with American society. Whether you agree with him or not that contrast is one of the writing strengths of Thompson, with ridicule of hypocrisy to play a prominent role in future writing.

Thompson describes the Angels as he sees them.

“Now, looking for labels, it is hard to call the Hell’s Angels anything but mutants. …They are the sons of poor men and drifters, losers and the sons of losers. …The Angels don’t like being 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.’”
Thompson, Hunter; Hell’s Angels. A Strange and Terrible Saga P252-254

Hunter Thompson manages to deflate some “legendary” stories about the Angels, and in so doing examine some of the American fascination with outlaws, and the Hell’s Angels in particular. We get a look at the intersection of the Angels with the beat/hippie contingent, brought together with Ken Kesey, Allan Ginsburg, and the Merry Pranksters. It was not a natural pairing, and though it seemed to flourish for a bit it would end badly, with the Angels coming down in support of the Vietnam War, and actually attacking anti-war demonstrations. (The culmination of this disastrous attempt to bring both sides together would occur at Altamont)

Thompson was famously “stomped” by a contingent of Angels at the conclusion of the book, so he experienced firsthand some of the nastier elements of the Angels lifestyle.

The death of Barger, more than fifty years after the publication of this book, and his own touch of fame, as an author, an “actor,” and an outlaw celebrity, is in part due to the notoriety he derived from this work. If you have not read it and you are a fan of Hunter S. Thompson it is still worth a read.

The NPR Obit of Sonny Barger.

View all my reviews

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