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July 2005

Roundtable

Forty Years Later: Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels

Katherine G. Sutherland

The reader new to Thompson’s “Strange and Terrible Saga” of the Hell’s Angels of the 1960s might well regard the dungaree-clad characters who rampage through the text, fueled by beer and styled by Brylcreem, as something closer to Heck’s Angels by today’s standard of badness. The real test of any book forty years after publication is whether it remains relevant, and this is complicated in the case of any book by Thompson because, perhaps more than anything, he wrote to shock and to be hip, and in this context, Hell’s Angels has inevitably lost some of its edge. Having made this point, however, it ca n still be argued that the book is worth reading, if only to remind us of how much the world has changed in the past half-century or so—and not always for the worse.

There are several events described in Hell’s Angels which seem to highlight its loss of cultural currency, but I will focus here on two which are closely related. The first is the fascinating encounter between the Hell’s Angels and Ken Kesey’s LSD-popping Merry Pranksters, who briefly saw themselves as united with the Angels by their counter-culture status. Not only is any alliance between these two groups difficult to picture from the perspective of the twenty-first century, the very thought of a radical group of psychotropic pirates calling themselves the “Merry Pranksters” seems impossibly quaint and historically distant. What keeps this section of the book fresh is the fact that Thompson was able to see the absurdity of this odd coupling even as it was happening. He writes,

The honeymoon lasted about three months and came to a jangled end on October 16, when the Hell’s Angels attacked a Get Out of Vietnam demonstration at the Oakland-Berkley border. The existential heroes who had passed the joint with the Berkley liberals at Kesey’s parties suddenly turned into venomous beasts, rushing on the same liberals with flailing fists and shouts of “Traitors,” Communists,” “Beatniks!” (244)

In a blunt analysis, Thompson adds a few lines later, “The Angels’ collective viewpoint has always been fascistic.” Fitting, then, that Kesey rhymes with queasy.

The second, related example in which this once avant-garde book shows its age most clearly is the graphic description of the rape of a young woman at a party by a group of Hell’s Angels. Thompson writes that the scene, which he witnessed, fell “somewhere between a friendly sex orgy and an all-out gang rape” (193). Rarely does one see the words “friendly” and “rape” used together to describe a sexual encounter in contemporary journalism, gonzo or otherwise, but despite such ambiguities, Thompson does describe the girl if not with sympathy, then with a kind of confused horror which emerges in his inarticulate witness account: “People standing around yelling, wearing no pants, waiting first, second, or third turns…girl jerking and moaning, not fighting, clinging, seems drunk, incoherent, not knowing, drowning” (193). In the end, Thompson cannot seem to decide how to decode this nasty scene, and so he turns to the dictionary, using its definitions, not his own, to inform us that this is, indeed, a scene of rape, no matter what Thompson, or, indeed, the reader, might think. At least Thompson avoids descriptors like “the rut hut,” the phrase Thomas Wolf uses to describe this same incident in a much more prurient way. (How many reporters were there to witness and judge but not to intervene, one wonders?)

I choose these two examples because they are the two that my students fixated on when we studied this book in my motorcycle literature course, and, of course, in this context relevancy and datedness emerge under the ruthless gaze of youth. My students—male and female—who had found much of Thompson’s text to be pretty benign, even fun, were utterly horrified by this scene. I felt, in this context, that I had to find reasons to defend the work, something to justify having made them read something so abhorrent to them.

Paradoxically, the best justification is precisely this sense that one is reading history: it is rarely a waste of time to read a document, particularly one this well-written, which makes strange to us our own antecedents. How did we come from there to here? And where to next? We were forced to explore the nature of rebellion and the ransom it sometimes demands—and what revolution does not find embedded in itself some expression of the terrible corruption of its own ideals? Hell’s Angels is not stale on this subject, and Thompson is acutely aware of and articulate on this topic. And this, of course, is the final justification: this form of journalism may no longer be cutting edge but rather has become the norm, but, eve n still, few people ever have written it as well as Thompson.

And his recent death by his own hand perhaps tells us that he, more than anyone else, understood that he was ready to take his place in history. And so we should continue to read him: as the late but always, undeniably, the great, and never, one hopes, to rest in peace.

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