'The Rum Diary'
I’ve probably read “The Rum Diary,” a novel written by then 22-year-old Hunter Thompson about a washed-up writer pushing his luck in pre-tourist infested San Juan, Puerto Rico, about 3,000 times now. Each read gives me sudden urges to close my eyes, spin a globe and move to wherever my finger lands without even thinking.
The book takes place in the late 1950s, where a traveling journalist in his early 30s named Paul Kemp takes a job at a decadent english-language newspaper called the Daily News. Kemp pretty much comes to San Juan as a suit-and-tie city boy, and before leaving, develops a vicious affinity for rum on rice and a series of un-healthy relationships with the people he encounters on the tropical island.
The book has shades of romanticism and deals with the fear of feeling over the hill and never having any meaningful direction in life. Although Thompson pitched this fictional book while trying to break through as an author in the early 60’s, much of the events are really based on Thompson’s experiences when he was actually living in San Juan and writing for various sporting publications.
Ironically, it bounced several times and was never published until toward the end of Thompson’s career, some forty years later. In between, Thompson went on to being the first to chronicle the Hell’s Angels, where he survived an infamous beat down by the gang before breaking ties. Those unfamiliar with his writing may have seen “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” a Terry Gilliam film with Johnny Depp based on the book of the same name. Depp is reprising his role for a film adaption of “The Rum Diary” set to be released later this year.
This book is a quick and fun read, written in more of a Hemingway-esque prose than the aggressive and off-the-wall gonzo style Thompson is known for. In this book, everyone on staff has a chip on their shoulder.
There is the blatantly arrogant Yeamon, a nut-job who people avoid, a guy named Moberg who is always fanatically drunk, and a paranoid publisher who thinks everyone working for him is out to sink the paper. Throw in a beautiful blonde named Cheanult, and you’ve got a cast of characters that lay the work for a rampant, stream-of-conscious narrative that does things hard to do: It makes the reader laugh out loud.
Part of the fun in reading the book and being familiar with Thompson’s background is trying to figure out the parts that actually happened. There is a scene toward the end where Kemp and the other Americans get into a brawl with cops and end up in jail. In some of Thompson’s later recordings, he confirms the scene in passing conversation as having actually happened.
Although a work of fiction, Thompson was still writing his novel based on some sort of “truth.”
If you’ve got a few hours and a bottle of rum to kill, go read this book.