Book Review: Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs

These are reviews/thoughts/musings of books read recently. All books rated on a scale of 1-5. Today’s review is Gonzo-journalism legend Hunter S. Thompson’s first published novel, 1967’s ‘Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs’.

Hunter S. Thompson is as close to a household name writer that America’s counterculture has ever produced. He’s synonymous with getting fucked up, is the godfather of Gonzo journalism (a style where the reporter is often involved in the story), and his scathing writings about politics and the world around him. Most of the younger (read: my) generation knows him as the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a drug-trip of a movie with Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro, but he was also a well-respected, albeit crazy political journalist in his time. Check out his incredible obituary of Richard Nixon, or his renowned short piece of Gonzo insanity, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved. No seriously, go read both of those. Your life will be better off for it. I’ll wait.

Hell’s Angels, Thompson’s first published book, is a nonfiction deep dive into the notorious motorcycle gang, stemming from Thompson’s time spent with them in the mid-60s. And perhaps this is unfair, but knowing what we know now about Thompson, his incredible talents, and his style, the book is a disappointment.

The premise of a legend like Thompson writing about something as interesting as the Hell’s Angels is tantalizing, but Thompson, clearly still finding his voice as a writer, is missing that honed style and manic intensity of his later works. The book is a straightforward effort to get to know the Angels–Thompson pulls few punches, painting them as losers more often than heroes and villains and also exploring how the media coverage of the gang changed their perception publicity and grew their legend.

Too often, though, it reads like a textbook, and the times when Thompson parties with the groups are too often painted in broad strokes rather than detailing experiences. Every so often, you get a taste of Thompson’s beautiful writing and smartass comments, and it lets you know you are indeed reading the work of a generational talent. But too often, you feel like it could have been written by just about anybody.

Perhaps without the raised expectations, this book would hit better–the simple promise of ‘Hunter S Thompson +  Hell’s Angels + drugs + debauchery’ sounds like it can’t miss, but it rarely gets your heart racing. If you’re looking for a close look at the Hell’s Angels of the 60s, a study as to what makes them tick and how they lived, it will deliver at least that. Hell’s Angels is like eating meat and potatoes–it has basic flavor and no kick, and the kick is the whole reason you’re reading Hunter S. Thompson. This one can safely be skipped.

Rating: **

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