With apologies to Matt Welch, master of the five word movie review, and Jason Kottke, who actually forms thoughtful and incisive paragraphs about all his reading material, the Fake Angeleno introduces a new blog feature today: the fake book review.
My aim is to blog — in hard, athletic prose — about every piece of pulp that crosses my nightstand. And by hard and athletic, I mean lazy, slipshod and brief. Or nasty, brutish and short if you prefer. Today's fake book review offering will be on Hell's Angels, by the late Hunter S. Thomson.
Before Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, there was Hell's Angels — Thompson's first-published full-length book. The full title is actually Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.
What talent this guy had.
He aspired to "high white notes" of prose, and, by God, he hit them often in this book. You can see why Carey McWilliams, legendary editor of The Nation and preeminent California historian of his time, gave Thompson a shot in the magazine and encouraged him to write this book.
Hell's Angels is best known for its author-as-part-of-the-story social criticism and anthropology, but I noticed it's also a fine work of media criticism. In Thompson's telling, the gang was basically a bunch of losers numbering fewer than 100 until the New York Times ran with a dubious rape story that opened the floodgates for national media outlets to sensationalize the gang.
Even at the height of a media feeding frenzy, the gang never numbered more than a few hundred and were fairly easily contained by local police forces. Thompson deftly juxtaposes the media's Hell's Angels obsession with its complete whiff on the lead-up to the Watts riots.
The book might easily have been titled "The Banality of Ultra-Violence."
Thompson portrays not glamorous outlaws but blue collar white guys — who never quite fit into society — stumbling around in an aimless, daily beer haze, given purpose and identity only by their gleaming, roaring bikes. Maybe Hell's Angels could have also been titled "Vladimir and Estragon (and hairy friends) discover the Harley.'
What a shame Thompson burned out his talent within a decade after publishing this book, then died by his own hand — reduced in the end to a pathetic parody of himself. Reading this first book made me realize, again, just how massive his talent really was.
Despite all the dissipation and painful, late-career screeds for ESPN.com, it shouldn't be forgotten that the good Dr. Thompson was capable of something like this:
"But with the throttle screwed on, there is only the barest margin, and no room at all for mistakes. It has to be done right… and that's when the strange music starts, when you stretch your luck so far that fear becomes exhileration and vibrates along your arms. You can barely see at a hundred; the tears blow back so fast that they vaporize before they get to your ears. The only sounds are the wind and a dull roar floating back from the mufflers. You watch the white line and try to lean with it… howling through a turn to the right, then to the left, and down the long hill to Pacifica… letting off now, watching for cops, but only until the next dark stretch and another few seconds on the edge… The Edge… There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others — the living — are those who pushed their luck as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later."