Hunter S. Thompson, potentially the very first ‘gonzo’ journalist, is in full force in his ‘non-fiction novel’ (sorry Capote, I stole that one from you), Hell’s Angels. After living and riding with the notorious Hell’s Angels gang for over two years in the sixties, Thompson can well and truly say that he put his blood, sweat and tears into this book. Literally.
Though the Hell’s Angels gang is synonymous with bikies in today’s culture, in the 1960s they were considered a class of their own – a new breed of unfathomable outlaws, whose dastardly deeds knew no bounds. Though there were a few hundred of them, mostly scattered around the state of California, the media turned them into a spectacle – a menace to be reckoned with, to be feared, and to be loathed.
Suddenly, this group of bearded misfits, most who weren’t fit for work, became infamous, seemingly overnight. In certain crowds they could sleep with whomever they wanted, trash whatever they felt like trashing, and always riding across the state like a large plague of locusts, the ferocious sounds of their Harley Davidsons alerting townsfolk of their inevitable arrival.
At the height of their notoriety, journalist Hunter S. Thompson infiltrated their gang; and though he was largely considered a ‘dirty pap’ who wasn’t fit to wear their colours, he was able to ride alongside them and witness their terrible antics firsthand.
Not that Thompson was exactly a wallflower himself. Well-known as a drinker, smoker and big fan of the psychedelic drugs, Thompson, though not murderous nor unruly, had the personality to fit in with this big, boozing group of men. And though Thompson may have contributed to their over-bearing portrayal in the media, he also completed the task that many other newsman failed – he uncovered the legend and showcased who the Hell’s Angels really were.
I’m currently studying Publishing at uni and it’s really quite excellent because it essentially gives me an excuse to read more books (like I needed one). In one class we’ve basically been talking and reviewing feature writers-turned-authors. And while I’ve read some of Wolfe and Capote’s stuff before, I’ve never picked up anything by Thompson. And after talking about him in such detail, well, I was intrigued.
What I loved about Hell’s Angels is that well I, alongside probably everyone else, know about their infamy, I’d never really considered who they really were. And Thompson manages to capture this perfectly. Well on the outside they come across as terrifying, burly men – all tattoos, piercings and facial hair, Thompson brings them down a notch in a few short words – “These guys are losers”. An interesting concept, but one that I could agree with.
While the idea of gangs, motorcycle or otherwise, are terrifying, they’re also made up by a group of (usually) men who no longer belong in society – whether it’s because they aren’t smart enough, social enough, or downright straight enough. And while they have the ability to scandalise a single person, they’re essentially outlaws for a reason – they don’t fit in.
In saying that, Thompson also refuses to pack any punches. Some of the things these men get up to are downright appalling. One man was known for pulling out the teeth of unsuspecting people, including a waitress who refused to serve him coffee. Most don’t understand the concept of rape, fidelity or even the respect of the opposite sex. Stories abound of women who have latched onto the gang in any means possible, in essence becoming a mound of flesh available for any Hell’s Angels who gets a bit horny.
Perhaps most interestingly though, and one that shows why gonzo journalism is considered so impressive, is that Thompson is able to write from the perspective of a Hell’s Angel. It’s not just about getting in there and witnessing their actions, but to actually communicate how it is that they think and feel. And ironically, as perhaps is the case with any individual who doesn’t belong in society, they feel wronged. They love being a Hells Angel for the fame and the fear associated with the name, but they don’t like getting pulled over solely because they’re wearing their colours. Or getting over-charged for beers. Or unable to hold a steady job because they want to have a flowing beard and hair.
Hell’s Angels for me was a fascinating and absorbing read. Though Thompson was supposedly high as a kite for the majority of this book, he writes in a succinct, emotionless way, allowing the actions and voices of the characters to tell the story themselves. It’s incredible that Thompson is ‘just reporting’ real events, because in the same way as other ‘non-fiction novels’, it’s easy to become absorbed and to feel as though this happened in a different world.
Then again, it was the sixties, so it kinda was, wasn’t it?
Oh, and just for the record, yes, Thompson did end up getting beaten to a pulp after the book came out.
Have you read anything by Hunter S. Thompson? Have you heard of gonzo journalism? What do you think of the idea of a feature article the length of a novel? Let me know!