Summary: Hunter Thompson spent a year with the Hells Angels and reported what he experienced in this first-person "non-fiction novel".
Critique: Compared to Thompson's later disjointed narratives (of which I am not a fan), this book seems fairly straight-forward. That's something of an illusion.
Thompson repeatedly interrupts his narrative to follow rabbit trails and woolgather. While the writing is very "writerly", the structure is much like someone verbally recalling an event.
For example, while starting a story about a bar fight, he will get about as far as a comment that will ultimately lead to the fight, and then he will jump to some long explanation of bar room protocol, and then about other fights and the way they are fought, and then…blah blah blah until he ultimately comes back to the main story, moves it forward a few minutes, then goes off another rabbit trail.
This can be a little tiring. Half of the book covers one weekend at a lake in which the gang's efforts to find an open store to buy beer takes up more space than allegations that two women were raped by several Hells Angels at the campground.
A lot of this rabbit-trailing disguises the fact that Thompson provides relatively little concrete detail about the Hells Angels. He seems to gloss over details that would cast specific members of the Hells Angels in a bad light, lead to prosecution, or cause the wrath of the group to come down upon his head. As it is, his time with the Angels came to a sudden end when a dispute about potential book royalties resulted in him being severely beaten by Angels he barely knew.
He is determined to portray the Angels as social outcasts and ragged individualists, misunderstood by the general population. Stories of drug-dealing and car and bike theft (or worse) would turn his noble beasts into common criminals.
All this contrasts with the sudden mood swing at the book's end, in which Thompson labels his time with the Angels as "a bad trip" and suggests that in his heart he feels they are all animals who should be put down. Thompson's claims of disgust and surprise at the manner with which the group so violently turned on him underscores his dishonesty throughout the book.
The book is now a little dated. Thompson writes how unacceptable motorcycles are to society at large, a conceit that is used primarily to reinforce his view of the Angels as people forced to the edge of society.
Still, there was a reason Honda's 1960's ads (with the famous "you meet the nicest people on a Honda" tagline) depicted white, middle-class couples doing clean-cut things like riding to the beach on their motorcycles.
Despite the decades that have passed since "Hell's Angels" was published, the book has one passage that is sadly still quite true:
"The highways are crowded with people who drive as if their sole purpose in getting behind the wheel is to avenge every wrong done by them.... A motorcyclist has to drive as if everybody else on the road is out to kill them. A few of them are, and many of those who aren't are just as dangerous—because the only thing that can alter their careless, ingrained driving habits is a threat of punishment, either legal or physical, and there is nothing about a motorcycle to threaten any man in a car."
A more modern look at motorcycle gangs and their crimes, "Under and Alone" by William Queen, sheds a more glaring light on its subjects.