I just finished reading Alex Abramovich’s new book about West Oakland and the East Bay Rats Motorcycle Club, Bullies: A Friendship. Years ago I read and enjoyed his article about the same subject in GQ. I’d say you can simply read the article and skip the book unless you were really compelled to know a little more about West Oakland in the mid to late 2000s
The book is essentially an extended cut of the article, with a lot more detail added, and a subplot about the excommunication of a member who might be responsible for the death of another Rat. The book also explores the criminal case involving Your Black Muslim Bakery and the rise of Occupy Oakland.
Immersion journalism about motorcycle clubs is always going to be compared to Hunter S. Thompson’s classic Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. I wouldn’t want to be compared with an all time great like Thompson, but I also didn’t write a book about a Bay Area motorcycle gang that attempts to offer commentary on the social and political history of a beleaguered city. So here we go.
Abramovich’s Rats are not nearly as anarchic or criminal as Thompson’s Hells Angels. The social unrest serving as their backdrop isn’t as interesting as what took place in the 60s. The choppy way he joins their tale to the story of Your Black Muslim Bakery and Occupy Oakland isn’t satisfying. He’s trying to set up something bigger, but never quite pulls it together. Other than temporal and geographic proximity, why are these things important to triangulate? The book falls short.
Thompson made an argument that the Hells Angels were a natural response to the issues of war, masculinity, poverty, and the American dream’s slow disintegration. Abramovich is basically just telling stories about his friend and the four years he lived in the city.
Here’s the thing: in a world with brutal fights on television and gangs of hood rat motorcycle kids pulling the craziest/awesomest stunts you’ve ever seen on YouTube, who really cares about this story? This isn’t a dig at the Rats at all, the world is just more intense now than it was a few years ago. That’s an observation that could’ve been explored. Another missed opportunity is discussing Jack London’s Oakland. He was a writer who lived a rough and tumble life not far from where the Rats were blowing things up.
The book feels like three different articles unnecessarily expanded and stitched together. Where Thompson used the Hells Angels as a lens to view and critique the culture, Abramovich simply recounts events. He never makes the reader care about the Rats or understand why we should care about what happens to West Oakland.
He mentions the recycling center and the crackheads who the Rats frequently abuse, but not anything deeper about the issues surrounding it. Every time I thought he was going to go into some depth, he doesn’t.
Abramovich’s most consequential observation is that West Oakland is changing because of an incursion of gentrifiers. But he doesn’t seem to consider himself part of that problem. The dude is a white, college educated professional writer from the East Coast. He’s basically the first wave of the upscale occupying force that I’m a part of. I’ve probably fought more than he has, definitely rode harder, and managed to buy a home in the area he had to leave by learning to live on less than I make. But I guess people like me are the assholes.
There’s a scene in Hell’s Angels where the biker gang goes down to a protest. The hippies think they’re there to save them from the cops, but they turn on the hippies and fuck them up while the cops look on. Thompson uses this story to great effect to explain the character of the club.
In Bullies, Trevor, the main protagonist of the story patrols Occupy Oakland because he’s “into the violence” but the Rats, many of whom are ex-military, present the cops with an American flag to replace the one protesters destroyed. There’s no explanation. Comparing these two stories could’ve added so much to the book.
Thompson was famously missing an end for his book, so he picked a fight with one of the Hells Angels, got his ass beat, and the rest is history. Abramovich started this journey looking for a fight, but ended up with a friend. That’s beautiful, but it doesn’t make for a good story.