I finished reading Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels a few days ago. This is the first substantial work that I’ve read from Thompson aside from a few magazine articles. Of course, I noticed his trademark sarcasm. He has nice technique, although I thought the writing threatened to cross the line into self indulgence many times. Thompson always pulled back before it jumped the tracks. It kept me on edge, wondering if everything would fly out of his control. There were many disturbing things that Thompson discovered about this group of bikers. All of it was hidden by a bravado and humorous style. His horror that they were lauded as cultural heroes was evident throughout the book. This was even before the Rolling Stone’s Altamount concert.
Thompson’s main focus was the issue of rape. He begins his book with a sensationalized case about two teenagers who were attacked by the Hell’s Angels. However there were no witnesses to the attack and soon after charges were dropped. Thompson makes uneasy friendships with a few of the Hell’s Angels and becomes a tag along. He portrays his subjects as a group of drifters who share a penchant for violence and laziness. Their attitude of general hopelessness which they turned into rebelliousness was on the surface, alluring. But it was after all a pose.
As the press and important people become more fascinated by the group, their subculture begins to fray at the edges. They began to believe what people were writing about them. Thompson bemusedly reveals that some chapters hired press managers to handle the news reporters. Some even requested money for interview privileges. He then showcases an aborted biker run to a small California town. Interwoven through these scenes was the subject of rape. It hovered throughout the book as a bad entity. A bad entity that was and is accepted by our culture.
Time and time again, Thompson relates tales of women who claimed that they were attacked. Time and time again the charges are dropped because the women were considered whorish or lying. Thompson states that many of the women did seek out the company of these bikers. Some even allowed themselves to be used. But there came a moment when all these situations tipped into outright attack and these attacks were ignored.
The book culminates at a party where Thompson himself witnessed a gang rape. He stated that in the beginning the woman did have consensual sex with one of the Hell’s Angels. But it quickly degenerated into rape. Thompson is a bystander to it all. The written scene is both visceral and cerebral. Could he have stopped it? Thompson wrote that it wasn’t a Hell’s Angels party. They probably would have stopped if someone protested. But no one did, including Thompson. If the police were notified, would they have done their jobs or blamed the woman? Would other men stand up and testify to what they saw? Would the woman confirm her own attack? Horribly the answers would all be no. Thompson even noted that the women who were married or dating the Hell’s Angels never interfered with the gang attacks on other women. Thompson is himself a conflicted observer and refrains from making an outright condemnation. On one hand he seems rather fascinated by all of this and on the other shocked. He makes an off statement about rape, such as women having “one rebellious nerve end that tingles with curiosity whenever the word is mentioned”. No, that was never true. I rather think Thompson was mistaking curiosity about sexual dominance play with rape. They aren’t the same. The simpler answer to such a statement was that he was projecting his own opinions onto women in general. He does admit that this group rapes because we, our American culture as a whole, allows them to do it. We don’t even recognize a true attack when it occurs. Instead we blame the woman.
Thompson makes pointed and still relevant critiques of our culture. He particularly lambasts the Greatest Generation for their early retirement from civics.
This is the generation that went to war for Mom, God and Apple Butter, the American Way of Life. When they came back, they crowned Eisenhower and then retired to the giddy comfort of their TV parlors, to cultivate the subtleties of American history as seen by Hollywood.
Our fascination with rebels, as defined by popular entertainment leads us to idolize the wrong people. The Hell’s Angels being a few that were held up to admiration for all the wrong reasons. In turn, I think the same thing occurred with Hunter Thompson himself.