Friday, July 20, 2007

Strange tales from a savage era

I couldn’t help it. I jumped on the Hunter S. Thompson bandwagon back in high school, when Jann Wenner was serializing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in Rolling Stone. And I’ve read almost every damn word the Doctor of Gonzo Journalism penned in more than four angst-ridden decades. So when I spotted this new memoir by illustrator Ralph Steadman about his difficult 35-year partnership with Thompson, I just couldn’t resist. I bought it Monday and gobbled it all up by Wednesday.

For HST fans — even those, like me, who don’t think he wrote anything of value after 1983’s Curse of Lono and, in fact, think books like Songs of the Doomed and Better Than Sex were, well, execrable — this book is essential reading. The Joke’s Over is really quite wonderful, and very frank, very honest. From their first assignment for Scanlan’s in 1970 to Thompson’s suicide two years ago, Steadman seems to hold nothing back, including the bitterness he often felt over his one-sided friendship with Dr. Gonzo. The book only irritates when Steadman periodically tries to imitate, poorly, the Thompson writing style in telling his version of the notorious escapade at the Kentucky Derby, for example, or the days in Hollywood during the filming of the unfortunate Where the Buffalo Roam. But I can forgive Steadman for that; hell, after reading Las Vegas for the first time, most of my student writings were punctuated for months by gonzo-inspired jargon.

It’s quite possible, I think, that Hunter Thompson would never have climbed to the literary heights he did without the accompaniment of Ralph Steadman’s drawings. Certainly, it was the unforgettable work of Steadman that drew me to that notorious issue of Rolling Stone in which the first installment of Fear and Loathing appeared in November 1971. So who better to tell the savage, excruciating tale than Steadman himself? No one.

I highly recommend The Joke's Over.

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