Harcourt, 2006 (2007 reprint), 396 pages, C$16.95 tpb, ISBN 978-0-15-101282-4
Hunter S. Thompson was (sometimes) a brilliant writer, but most of his legend is based on stories of hard substance abuse, aggressive behavior and casual disregard for authority. While that makes for spectacular adventures, it’s quite another thing to reflect upon the consequences of that kind of mindset on close friends and family.
Ralph Steadman’s The Joke’s Over is that strangest of autobiographies: a personal narrative almost entirely centered around another person. The autobiography of a sidekick, so to speak. Gonzo fans already know that Steadman is the artist responsible for the signature illustrations bundled with Thompson’s best-known work: The nightmarish caricatures in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas are as much part of the reading experience as the text itself, and so Steadman has become an integral part of the Gonzo Journalism myth, the visual representation of Thompson’s prose aesthetics. Steadman is an accomplished artist in his own right, but there’s no doubt that there are more Thompson fans than people interested in a straight-up Steadman autobiography: Hence The Joke’s Over, a lengthy testimony of what it was like to be a friend of Hunter S. Thompson.
It’s not a simple friendship made of friendly communication and simple fishing trips: From their first meeting in Kentucky (The first chapter of The Joke’s Over reads like the mirror image of Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”, down to Thompson macing Steadman and driving him away to the airport in a cloud of invectives), Steadman and Thompson seem to oscillate between common admiration and shared loathing. Steadman, upon writing down his memories, becomes conscious that it was a relationship in which only Thompson could see himself as the superior one. It didn’t help that the writer suffered from life-long money problems, and that a recurring topic in this biography is royalties and how much Thompson wrangled over his share of the proceeds. Not that Steadman took advantage of his partner: Tales abound about how his illustrations were re-used at a pittance, and how difficult Thompson could become whenever financial issues were discussed.
Steadman never quite says it, but he comes close to acknowledging how much of an abusive relationship his friendship with Thompson could be. While the two remained close during their entire lives (which tells us something about how fiercely loyal Thompson could be, and how he inspired his friends to be the same to him), it wasn’t always smooth or simple. One thing almost left unsaid by Steadman that you have to read about in other biographies is the rift that erupted between the two men in the early nineties as Thompson had a stint in jail (which led to a fund-raiser, which led to more money issues) and Steadman contributed to unauthorized biographies that displeased the writer.
It’s all great material, but one of the most frustrating things about The Joke’s Over is that it’s best read with ample knowledge of the context: Steadman may or may not be a skilled writer, but the editing of the book is deficient: The stream-of-consciousness gonzo writing style has no place in a biography of the sort: Entire paragraphs of The Joke’s Over are incomprehensible or tangential, veering off in wild political screeds that aren’t uninteresting, but distract considerably from the main text. At 396 pages, Steadman’s book is far too long and disjoint, not to mention unpleasant to read.
It goes without saying that The Joke’s Over is a book for the die-hard Thompson fans: Most will be better off reading William McKeen’s superlative biography Outlaw Journalist to be told crisply what Steadman takes forever to say. On the other hand, skipping over The Joke’s Over means missing out on the feeling of being stuck with the Thompson whirlwind, having pills pressed in our hands and flying off in a daze of violent fear and loathing. The Joke’s Over may not be entirely pleasant experience for grounded readers, but it’s a minor success of gonzo writing taking Hunter S. Thompson as its subject.