Counter-culture heroes or losers?

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What begins as a portrait of the Hell's Angels, a group of motorcycle outlaws filling headlines in the 1960s, turns into an examination of the "Great Society" that created them.

Hunter S. Thompson wrote this book early in his career, when he was still a scrawny freelance journalist who could barely afford the beer and gas it took to follow the Hell's Angels for a year.

Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga"

By Hunter S. Thompson

$14 paperback

What he discovers in that year are a group of sorry, social outcasts who have burned every bridge anyone ever built for them and whose newfound fame has gone to their empty, violent heads.

Toward the end of the book, Thompson introduces the Angels to Ken Kesey's group of Merry Pranksters who were then living in California. He watches the two groups of fringe elements interact -- the anti-Vietnam hippies and the patriotic Angels -- and compares their origins and their fates.

The Berkeley intellectuals were rebelling against the status quo, but if they wanted to, they could walk away from the protest line. They could cut their hair and put on suits and dissolve into the world of Squares.

But the Hell's Angels were doomed to always be "losers," Thomspon wrote. "Very few read books, and in most cases their formal education ended at fifteen or sixteen ... They are the sons of poor men and drifters, losers and the sons of losers. ... As people, they are like millions of other people. But in their collective identity they have a peculiar fascination so obvious that even the press has recognized it."

Thompson tries to end his portrait on a positive note, with an image of himself riding a motorcycle late at night along the California coast. The cold night air fills his eyes with tears as he continues to accelerate. The would-be end of the book is one of the most famous lines he ever wrote: "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."

But the story doesn't end there.

On Labor Day 1966, Thompson finally becomes the victim of one of the irrational, violent attacks he had witnessed so often doled out to others. One Angel finally pulls him off the ground after most members of the group have taken a swing or a kick at his body.

He drives himself to the hospital with one eye swollen closed and a broken rib, and this ending is less romantic and more honest.

He writes, "I got in my car and sped off, spitting blood on the dashboard and waving erratically across both lanes. ... The emergency ward waiting room was full of wounded Gypsy Jokers. The most serious case was a broken jaw, the result of a clash earlier that evening with a pipe-wielding Hell's Angel.

"The Jokers told me they were on their way north to wipe the Angels out. ... I wished them luck. I wanted no part of it. I was tired, swollen and whipped."

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