Over the weekend I picked up a used copy of Hunter S. Thompson's first book, Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga.
I admired Thompson greatly as a teenager, and discovered him when my mother handed me a copy of The Great Shark Hunt, a collection of his early articles. He was exactly the kind of writer who would appeal to a teenager - alienated, profane, cynical and very witty.
Indeed, I thought he was hilarious and - like countless other boys of a certain time and place - I sought to emulate his "gonzo journalism" in the school paper.
Years passed and moved on to other interests and he faded from public view. I stumbled upon him when I was in my 20s and he was writing an online column for Sports Illustrated. My joy at rediscovering him was short-lived, though. It was immediately obvious that he was recycling the same material and doing the same schtick, exactly like a Borscht Belt comedian he would have lampooned 30 years previously.
He died by his own hand, a deeply unhappy man. Reading through Hell's Angels, that unhappiness was already visible.
Thompson clearly intended the book to be an indictment on what he considered the morally bankrupt landscape of post-war America. In his telling, the Hell's Angels were simply a manifestation of the misfit men who could not be satisfied with a day job, a wife, two kids and a mortgage in the suburb. It is a standard elitist complaint, and the book documents an attempt by the Berkeley intelligentsia to coopt the Angels as their militant wing.
But both New Left and Thompson failed to understand that there is a certain satisfaction to working hard and providing for one's family. The United States of that era was unique only in the ease and luxury that such labors could bring. The fact that Thompson was personally incapable of doing it left him angry and often depressed.
Over the years since I first read him, I've learned an essential truth: happy people don't binge on drugs or alcohol. What struck me as bold, fearless and iconoclastic I now recognize as a sign that he was already aware that something within him was broken. Thus, his account of the Hell's Angels veers between justifying their actions and deriding them as smelly violent rapist drunks.
By the end of the book it is clear that Thompson both admires and hates them, just as he admires and hates himself. He's got a pretty good gig as a writer, and this book will be his breakthrough work, catapulting him to fame and fortune.
But at the same time, he hates who he is, and he deeply envies the bikers who have the guts to throw away any pretense of respectability and live the outlaw lifestyle. Indeed, he craved their acceptance and his savage beating at their hands broke his heart.
The book offers a cockeyed portrait of California in the mid-60s, and is chock full of lurid fantasies and crude caricatures of police officers and average citizens just trying to get by. A recurring theme in Thompson's writing - which never went away - was that 'normal' people were simply too stupid to be like him. They were also depraved in a dull-witted way, incapable of grasping his cultured, erudite and sophisticated understanding of the world. Late the book he derides the World War II generation as simpletons who fought for "Mom, The American Way and Apple Butter" and then got stupid watching the television.
That's a pretty hot take for a guy who washed out of the peacetime Air Force.
Speaking of foreshadowing, Hell's Angels includes passages where Thompson talks of his own escapades of shooting out the windows of his apartment using a .44 magnum and a shotgun. Throughout his later work, Thompson was obsessed with firearms, but only in the most careless and buffoonish way.
There is (or was) a youtube video of him firing at his neighbor in Colorado using a Luger, which not only showcase his utter unsuitability to own a firearm, but also his terrible maintenance of the Luger, which jammed. Thompson was a caricature of a gun nut, not a serious shooter. He clearly took the attitude that if he was this grotesquely unsafe, just imagine what the yokels dumber than him must be like!
Various sections of Hell's Angels begin with a quotation that highlights the narrative. At the time, I'm sure people assumed a reporter would never fudge the truth, but in our jaded age, I can't help but note how many of them are not only perfect for what follows, but also unattributed. How convenient that an anonymous cop says just what he needs them to say to make his point.
That's the central problem with both this book and his subsequent work. He's a journalist but by his own admission is both drugged out of his mind and happy to lie his way out of (or into) trouble.
Thompson would go on to write various books featuring "fear and loathing," and I think that encapsulates his work and his life. He had an abundance of both.