Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Strange and Terrible Sagas

Hell's Angels by Hunter S. Thompson (1966): Thompson's first full-length book points the way towards what was dubbed his 'Gonzo Journalism' (heavily rearranged, partially fictionalized, intensely subjective reporting) while nonetheless remaining fairly straightforward. 50 years after the events and people Thompson covers, the book still packs quite a punch.

Thompson managed to insinuate himself into a West Coast Hell's Angels chapter for about a year during what was really the first mass-culture awareness of the Hell's Angels (which were, at the time, a fairly small assortment of West Coast motorcycle gangs). Amidst fairly quick snapshots of the history the rise of motorcycle gangs (in America, a post-WWII, California-centric phenomenon at the beginning), Thompson also critiques the various hysterical media and public response to biker gangs.

But while Thompson takes care to contextualize and humanize the various bikers he comes into contact with, he doesn't sentimentalize them: this is a book that does end, hyperbolically, with Thompson quoting Heart of Darkness in relation to the Angels ("Exterminate the brutes."). Some of Thompson's sociological speculation about the roots of biker culture lying in America's long-standing, migratory White Trash community comes across as less than a little half-baked -- but he also seems to be on to something. 

Thompson's Hell's Angels -- swastika-wearing, rape-culture-glorifying, knee-jerk violent, loyal to one another, fascist in their essential make-up, deeply racist -- ultimately come across as being the barbaric forebears of such things as today's Tea Party. 

Obviously, Thompson couldn't make that connection in 1966. But his lengthy exegesis on the nihilistic tribalism of the Angels could just as well be describing the ultimately nihilistic, destruction-worshiping, violence-loving Far Right of the American 21st century. Loyalties exist only within one's own tribe. People outside that tribe aren't just disposable -- they aren't really people. And everyone is against you. As the jacket copy says, a strange and terrible saga. Highly recommended.

Savage Night by Jim Thompson (1953): Prolific thriller writer Jim Thompson wrote the sort of pulp that literary critics came to love over the course of his lengthy career. There's a fully realized sense to the worlds he created in his novels, even an early one like Savage Night, that makes them unforgettably bleak. 

He most often focused his narratives on murderers and monsters; Savage Night makes its first-person narrator, a Mob hit-man who's been on the run for years only to be pulled back in for one more assassination, pitiful and human and utterly awful. But so is almost everyone around him, as is typical in a Thompson novel: there are very few good people in the world his characters inhabit.

For more than half a decade, the narrator 'hid' inside the guise of a poor but honest man. And he truly believes that he was a decent person for those years. But by the end of the novel, even that assessment will be in doubt. Thompson's characters often possess radically destabilized senses of self. Nothing is certain. 

Savage Night hums along in its brevity. Our narrator becomes, if not sympathetic, than at least pitiable. And the oft-discussed final thirty pages take the characters into the realms of broken consciousness and the almost surreal. It's one hell of a denouement. Highly recommended.

Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson (1964): Famously moved to French Africa and  adapted to film by Bernard Tavernier in 1981 as Coup de Torchon, Pop. 1280 occurs in novel form in the pre-World-War-One American South, in the smallest county in its state. And possibly the most corrupt.

Our first-person narrator, the sheriff of this small county, makes the psychotic narrating lawman of Thompson's earlier The Killer Inside Me look like Sherlock Holmes by comparison. His sole redeeming feature is disgust at the racism of the poor whites around him. That's it. That's all he's got.

Well, perhaps he's redeemed also by his role as Nemesis to some pretty terrible people -- but as he also wipes out the innocent, he is, ultimately, no saint. Our narrator has spent his life as a lawman gliding by, doing little, taking bribes, protecting the status quo -- and pretending to be far, far stupider and more guileless than he truly is. Or maybe he's always been doing terrible things behind the scenes.

Among other pleasures, Pop. 1280 offers the reader a grad course in unreliable narration -- an escalating, almost vertiginous lesson in this by the end of the novel. The inside of the narrator's head turns out to be a labyrinth. But the Minotaur seems to be all the bloody, terrible, despicable things people do to one another because they're damned and because they can. There is no Theseus, and no thread leading to safety. This is perhaps Thompson's bleakest depiction of humanity in general and America in particular. Highly recommended.

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