When I picture the late Hunter S. Thompson, it is not a photograph I see, but a caricature of him in a floppy hat and aviator sunglasses, carrying an elegant cigarette holder. Images like this one have been produced for almost four decades by Thompson's longtime friend and travel companion Ralph Steadman. A flamboyant artist, Steadman illustrated many of Thompson's best-known articles and books, including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Now the artist turns author in his new book, The Joke's Over, a memoir of his escapades with Thompson.
The pair first met in 1970, when Steadman traveled from his native Britain to illustrate a magazine article Thompson was writing on the Kentucky Derby. They spent most of the trip drinking and taking drugs, and it culminated with Thompson spraying Steadman in the face with Mace. But it also resulted in some wild, cutting-edge writing and illustrations, and gave birth to Gonzo journalism. Their subsequent assignments had them covering The America's Cup yacht race, the 1972 presidential campaign, the Watergate hearings and the infamous road trip to Las Vegas in search of the American Dream.
Steadman's memoir is bittersweet. At times he writes of Thompson in affectionate terms, at others he accuses him of being a cold-hearted acquaintance who cheated the illustrator out of royalties on their books. Yet their sometimes chilly 35-year relationship warmed in the latter years, and Steadman was among the 300 mourners at Thompson's 2005 funeral, when his ashes were fired from a cannon atop a 153-foot-tall tower. Steadman was there from beginning to end, and thus has license to write a credible tale about life with Thompson. Hunter was a different animal, Steadman observes. He learned the balance between living out on the edge of lunacy and apparently normal discourse with everyday events. The Joke's Over is a must read for both longtime fans of Thompson, and the curious who want to learn about a risk-taking writer who left his indelible mark on American journalism. John T. Slania is a journalism professor at Loyola University in Chicago.