Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Hell’s Angels

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, June 16, 2001

The fact that many Angels have virtually created their bikes out of stolen, bartered or custom-made parts only half explains the intense attachment they have for them. You’ve got to see an outlaw straddle his hog and start jumping on the starter pedal to fully appreciate what it means. It is like seeing a thirsty man find water.

A piercing vision into the why of every group in the motorcycle gang scare of the sixties: outlaws and squares and cops.

AuthorHunter S. Thompson
Length288 pages
Book Rating7

Subtitled “The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs”, Thompson covers the “Oakland chapter” from the Labor Day run of 1964 to Christmas of 1965. This was the book that gave Hunter S. Thompson his “big” break. Except for the choice of subject matter it is mild and sedate compared to just about everything he’s written since. It is still, however, a fine piece of work, showing not only a talent for description of the odd but also a piercing vision into the why of every group in the saga: outlaws and squares and cops. I suspect it is this book above all others that causes some bookstores to shelve Thompson’s works in the “sociology” section.

If you’re interested in motorcycle gangs, or if you just want a look at the bottom end of the American Dream, you shouldn’t miss Hell’s Angels.

If you’re a fan of Tom Wolfe, you’ll also find “Hell’s Angels” interesting because a few chapters cover the same events that happen with the Hell’s Angels in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”.

In the early sixties, motorcycle gangs--especially the Hell’s Angels--were big news. Staid, middle-class America was scared out of their wits by the thought of these raping, pillaging barbarians spreading outside of California and into the heartland. At the start of the book, Thompson quotes from Time--evidently the same bastion of “unique” statistics and sensationalism that they are today--an article which ends with “To that, thousands of Californians shuddered a grateful amen.”

No doubt there was some shuddering done in California that week, but not all of it was rooted in feelings of gratitude. The Hell’s Angels shuddered with perverse laughter at the swill that had been written about them. Other outlaws shuddered with envy at the Angels’ sudden fame. Cops all over California shuddered with nervous glee at the prospect of their next well-publicized run-in with any group of motorcyclists. And some people shuddered at the realization that Time had 3,042,092 readers.

If the Hell’s Angels of the late sixties were a product of anything, it was the press coverage that they received in the mid-sixties, and the sensationalist journalism of magazines such as Time and Newsweek.

Few people would have had the balls to hang out repeatedly with the vilified and extreme Hell’s Angels and write about them while doing it; fewer still would have had the state of mind to stay alive and basically unharmed. Even Thompson has his run-in with the Angels when he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Hell’s Angels scare of the mid-sixties is an almost typical example of how mainstream society was reacting to the sixties. If you don’t understand it, be frightened of it; stamp it out. Spend lots and lots of money getting law enforcement on it right away. And make sure there’s lots of press coverage. “Hell’s Angels” is as much a case study of the mainstream and of the press as it is of the Hell’s Angels. How individuals reacted to the Angels; how towns and cities reacted; how state committees studied them; and how the media chose which parts to report on, which parts to ignore, and which parts to just plain make up, is a fascinating study not of the world of the Angels, but of our own world. To a very large extent, we still live in the world that Hunter was reporting on, and the news media still react in the same way to things they don’t understand.

Hell’s Angels

Hunter S. Thompson

Recommendation: Purchase