Ralph Steadman’s The Joke’s Over tells the best

“Don’t write, Ralph. You’ll bring shame on your family.” HST.

A recent impulse buy was The Joke’s Over, Ralph Steadman’s account of his 35 years as Hunter S. Thompson’s best friend and most forgiving enemy. In past trips I had a healthy fear of treading through (what I believed to be) a non-writer’s lengthy book. I found my fears justified early into the book—it is somewhat uneven and often repetitious. But the middle portion settles into a pretty solid style, to be jarred apart by a messy ending that I would guess was written first.

That’s not the point. The fact of the matter is that Steadman has more to say, good and bad, about Thompson than anyone on the planet. And Steadman’s take on Thompson is very different from how Thompson chose to have himself perceived. For somewhat silently putting up with Thompson’s evil treatment for so long, while adding significantly to each stage of the twisted legend, Steadman deserves his long-delayed podium. Thompson ridiculed Steadman’s writing and his interests, and almost categorically ignored his non-gonzo artistic works. But Hunter also let him in on his deepest fears, and in his own way ensured Steadman knew he was his most ancient and trusted friend. This strikes me as an honest memoir, and one that sets important facts straight while adding color to the famous parts of Hunter’s life.

Steadman shows off his own brand of bad behavior. And the times Hunter’s greatness reflect through Steadman are the best parts. Steadman’s quotation of a sticky note left on an Owl Creek cabinet is the best passage in the book:

“…To show man the best that is in him; not the most appealing or the most amusing or even the most realistic – but the best, which is rare and common and understood by all of us in all our different ways … to include all the others – the meanest, the cheapest, the most cowardly – as a background and a foreground for something better … to dig in the old scum that covers us all and find something that might be a tool for a man who would use it to fashion his self-respect in a world where all those tools are buried or broken or illegal … and finally to tell it as it is, trying to see it all and especially the best, for to miss that part is to shovel shit on men who were born in quicksand and find no novelty in the heave and smell of doom.”

Hunter enjoyed showing the best. For himself that included a non-existent gun safety record. Steadman indulges in the many times Hunter nearly ended him.


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