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Book Review: The Joke’s Over by Ralph Steadman

October 25, 2006

Ralph Steadman met Hunter S. Thompson at the 1970 Kentucky Derby and for the next 35 or so years his artwork helped drive the success of some of Thompson’s most important works. While Steadman’s name may not ring a bell with the average American, his work is immediately recognizable to Thompson fans, and it’s safe to say that neither of their careers would have been the same without the other.

Nevertheless, in his new book The Joke’s Over, Steadman says his first reaction to Thompson shooting himself to death in early 2005 was “About bloody time!” While it’s clear that Steadman loved Thompson and that this was a bit of black humor (or maybe Steadman didn’t at first believe the news), it’s also clear that Thompson could be difficult, defensive and selfish. Whether it was their shared love of “gonzo” journalism that kept them together, or whether once united their highest worth to the outside world was as a team, their relationship endured to the end. It was a wild ride and not always an easy one.

The Joke’s Over is a must-read for any Hunter S. Thompson fan, and for the many Ralph Steadman fans as well. Built on anecdotes from both their famous collaborations and from good ideas that collapsed under the weight of their drug-addled revelry, the book offers almost 400 pages worth of stories that only someone in the midst of the gonzo action could tell you.

In 1970, Steadman was paired up with Thompson to illustrate Thompson’s take on the seedier side of the Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s Monthly magazine (which would fold soon after). While Steadman wasn’t Thompson’s first choice, it soon became clear that Steadman was willing and able to roll with Thompson’s pace and idiosyncracies, and that Steadman’s garish art was the perfect complement to Thompson’s caustic words.

So it was natural that Steadman would be the choice to illustrate the story that would be Hunter’s biggest break, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for the still fledgling Rolling Stone magazine. The story was a big success, but even today Steadman has some hard feelings about being short-changed in the money department: “Where is Winnie the Pooh without its illustrations? Where is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas without its Gonzo drawings?” On the other hand, he says, “I wouldn’t have missed the trip for the world.”

In the years that followed, Thompson and Steadman worked on a variety of high-profile projects, including covering the 1972 political conventions and Watergate. Perhaps the most interesting story Steadman tells, though (other than the initial Kentucky Derby episodes), concerns the “Rumble in the Jungle”, the 1974 fight in Zaire between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. The combination of the surreal setting and the general “anything goes” nature of working with Thompson makes for a bizarre trip in which Steadman learns that George Foreman wanted to be a baker, Thompson sells their fight tickets and the story of it all never sees the light of day.

Because Steadman lived in England, communication between he and Thompson was often via mail or via fax, and that happy occurrence means that many of those words still exist and are reprinted here. In his letters, Thompson comes off as suspicious of people hitching themselves to his star (even accusing Steadman of it) and he is sometimes straight out mean. At the same time, he can be hilarious and often tempers his harsh words with a buddy-buddy tone that gives the impression it’s all a big joke. It’s a style that seems to have kept people off-balance, which may be appropriate as Thompson was more than a little unbalanced himself.

Steadman sees in Thompson a man who was continually hurt by the injustices of the world and created a strike-first persona as a defense mechanism. In fact, he opines that Thompson’s eventual suicide was driven partly by his disillusionment with what he saw as the lies and corruption of the Bush administration, or more precisely his view that his America was no longer. Whether that is true no one will ever know, and in a concluding letter Steadman writes to Thompson questioning why he did it and conveying his sadness that Thompson felt it had to be done.

It was a wild, sometimes difficult trip, but Steadman seems aware that it’s not often you come across a personality like Hunter S. Thompson, and his gratefulness at having had the opportunity to play sidekick on some of Thompson’s great adventures comes shining through. Pick up The Joke’s Over and you’ll get one last chance to eavesdrop on a world that only Hunter S. Thompson could have created.

e-mail me: adam@bessed.com

Adam Jusko is founder and CEO of Bessed, a Web site promising “search without spam”, thanks to human-edited search results and ongoing visitor feedback. Do a search, offer your comments, submit your site–help create the “bessed” search site in the world.

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One comment

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