by Kyle K. Mann
Gonzo Today Editor-in-Chief
This is a big book, literally and figuratively. The short version:
The Hell’s Angels Letters is a must-have text for any Hunter S. Thompson fan. Lavishly documented and illustrated with the actual correspondence that led to the publication of his breakthrough literary effort, ‘Hell’s Angels,’ this coffee-table book literally shows how HST boot-strapped his way from a impoverished nobody journalist to growing legend. The author, Margaret Harrell, who was Thompson’s editor on his inaugural book, and her collaborator, Thompson’s friend and associate poet Ron Whitehead, have succeeded brilliantly to create a fabulous present for you, or anyone in your life who admires Thompson’s numerous achievements. It is not inexpensive, but no matter, it’s worth every penny. The Hell’s Angels Letters: Hunter S Thompson, Margaret Harrell and the Making of an American Classic gets five stars out of five! Bravo!
Editor’s note: One can only buy a copy of the book via the publisher, Norfolk Press. The link: https://norfolkpress.com/the-hells-angels-letters-hunter-s-thompson-margaret-harrell-and-the-making-of-an-american-classic-margaret-harrell/
The long version:
I was delighted to get the package at the Topanga Post Office from Ron. I got it home and opened it eagerly. As I flipped through the pages, I was astounded to see typewritten and even handwritten letters from HST. Beyond amazing! But, how the freaking hell am I going to review it?
It sat on my desk for weeks, demanding attention. I found myself resentful as the days went by… what am I doing with this monstrosity? I’d open it and recoil due to the intensity of HST’s personality, roaring off the page. I tried getting stoned and looking anew, but nope, way too heavy to digest and analyze in that state. Yet, Ron had sent it to me to review, and I knew our Gonzo Today readers wanted, even needed, to get my take.
The irony of this urgent challenge to review a new book about Hunter S. Thompson ran deep. Obviously, Gonzo Today is a publication based on Gonzo Journalism itself, so a review had to be worthy. And the book in question is by an editor who HST trusted to edit, though not without a bit of friction. So again, the bar was high, since the fact is I have to be both writer and editor. That’s a conflict of interest, but had to be gotten past. I had accepted the challenge, and had to get used to the idea of yelling at myself. Grab the book, and look at it!
At first, the cover itself troubled me. Artist Grant Goodwine, whose name sounds like he should be the epicurean editor of some high-end publication, was walking a fine line between Ralph Steadman and cartoonist Ted Rall. Why didn’t Steadman create the cover, I grumped to myself. But as time went by the wisdom of the cover began to sink in. First off, ‘Hell’s Angel’s’ is pre-Gonzo. Sure, the foundation of Gonzo is there in Thompson’s first book, but the total insanity of the early 70’s books has not quite developed yet, and Steadman’s distinctive art was a big part of that insanity. So the Goodwine cover works well, as do his interior illustration efforts. OK, good cover and art. But my stressed brain stayed blank. My lips pursed in distaste, and I put the tome down and cursed.
Another week or two went by, and the dreaded Southern California extreme summer heat finally arrived. The all-time highest temperature recorded in Topanga, 118F according to the L.A.Times, didn’t help my ability to concentrate on the task at hand. I hate air conditioning, as it drastically dries out my sinuses. Better for me to sit in front of a couple fans, and ride it out.
Insane heat! At a hundred and twelve degrees inside, the cover seemed to be looking at me. Hunter Thompson’s cartoon eyes were moving! I glared back at the book, sweaty, grim and glum. I felt guilty, and that made me angry. Finally, unwilling to put the massive shape away and admit defeat, I covered the item up with letters and bills. That made me feel better at once.
Another week went by, and with it the further indignity of choking clouds of wildfire smoke, but finally cooler, clearer days arrived. I was fussing around on my messy desk and dislodged the pile of paper, exposing a corner of the book with Harrell’s and Whitehead’s name. Oops. Well, time to dig it out and try again.
This time I started with the chronology. 1965, 1966… but after a couple pages, my brain refused to lock on. I stared at the cover again, then began flipping through the pages at random, like Orwell’s character Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, who scans portions of the book-within-a-book supposedly written by Orwell’s character Emmanuel Goldstein. Nope, not working for me either. Growl! How to review this unbelievable mass of Hunter S. Thompson’s private writings? Was I simply overthinking this self-assignment? Step back, gain perspective, take a deep breath.
Then it finally hit me: as a reviewer, read The Hell’s Angels Letters like the I Ching.
Now, if you are unfamiliar with the Chinese Book of Changes, please look it up. That book, and the oracle that it can be, have meant a lot to me at various moments in my life. Saved me, even, a couple times, throwing pennies to arrive at a judgement via hexagrams. It ain’t for everybody, but for those in the know, it kicks ass. So, again opening the big book at random, but this time calling on the Oracle, I began anew.
At once I started enjoying myself. Harrell apparently saved everything HST ever sent her, even down to the postcards, and she intersperses her own text with pages of Thompson’s writings to her, much of it various hilarious gripes about money and the publisher Random House. Several of her own replies, with a Random House letterhead, give HST’s correspondence conversational context, and as he became a bit more financially secure in the later 1960’s, his own Owl Farm letterheads appear. There is also a bit of correspondence to Harrell from the one-and-only Oscar Zeta Acosta, aka Dr. Gonzo, and startling notes to her from counterculture legend Paul Krassner.
It’s worth noting that halfway through this tome, we are past the Hell’s Angels publication and into a murky period that included HST’s infamous piece on the Kentucky Derby and his initial involvement with Rolling Stone.
It is simply extraordinary to read these missives over a half century later. Take note of HST’s phrasing, which points the way to Fear and Loathing. Enjoy his outrage, which crackles off of the page like dry lightning in a tinder dry forest.
There are also edifying chunks of Margaret Harrell’s point of view from the perspective of the present day. Again, we are talking about the first major editor HST could work with here, who enabled him, encouraged him, and never gave up on him. These are crucial attributes that allowed Hunter Thompson’s career take off, of course, and Ron Whitehead’s fine opening tribute to her stands as a testament to the debt we fans of HST owe Ms. Harrell.
There is also, towards the end, a moving section on Margaret Harrell’s last encounter with HST in 1991 at Owl Farm. Clearly, he and his Hell’s Angels editor had some deep karma together. The bittersweet flavor is strong through this section.
The book also reminds me anew on a gut level what a loss we have endured, and are still enduring. We have badly needed Thompson’s printed and spoken wisdom and humor since he checked out in 2005, and never more than in this current ghastly 2020 election. Probably most of us have wondered what he would have given us in reaction to the unbelievable mess the USA is in now: the American Dream in smithereens.
At the very end Ron Whitehead gets the last word, or rather HST does regarding him, in a hand-edited note from 1998. Which is only fair, since the idea of this book was originally suggested to Harrell by Whitehead.
Nitty gritty time, HST fans and students. Is it really, truly worth sixty bucks?
Hell yeah. It’s therapy.
It’s also fascinating page-turning literary history, if you don’t have to write a review of it for Gonzo Today.
Kyle K. Mann
September 18, 2020