The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson
Simon & Schuster Paperbacks
Summary: The Rum Diary is Thompson’s self-described “Great Puerto Rican novel.” It’s terrific coming-of-age story that makes me lament all of the years Thompson wasted while fighting his demons.
My review: By the time Hunter S. Thompson finally published The Rum Diary in 1998, his best days were long past. It had been decades since Thompson’s best work (Hell’s Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, and The Great Shark Hunt). The years since the mid-1970s had been an ugly downward slide. By the late-1990s, things had devolved to the point where Thompson seemed to have become a performance artist playing a pathetic real-life imitation of Doonesbury’s Uncle Duke.
The Rum Diary, therefore, came as a great surprise to me. Years of mediocre offerings from Thompson had conditioned me to expect little. But the novel works and it has a lot of the “Gonzo” spirit that propels Thompson’s best work.
The story centers on Paul Kemp, a down-on-his-luck American journalist who takes a job at a struggling English-language paper in Puerto Rico. Kemp struggles to make a living at the paper, but Kemp’s journalism plays only a secondary role in the plot.
Thompson spends a lot of time discussing Kemp’s rum-fueled, low-rent lifestyle. The paper’s staff is composed of misfits and hacks who spend their time swilling rum and eating hamburgers at a local place called Al’s. Partying, pontificating, and – especially – denigrating Middle America are the order of the day with Paul and his friends. Consider the following passage:
… he was a phony and he didn’t even know it. … He was just another noisy little punk in the great legion of punks who march between the banners of bigger and better men. Freedom, Truth, Honor – you could rattle off a hundred such words and behind every one of them would gather a thousand punks, pompous little farts, waving the banner with one hand and reaching under the table with the other. – page 183
The central drama in the book concerns Kemp’s colleague, Yeamon, and his girlfriend Chenault. They live on the beach in a primitive house where Chenault enjoys taunting the locals by sunning herself in the nude. Predictably, a romantic triangle emerges between Kemp-Yeamon-and Chenault. Events come to a head when the three take a trip to The Virgin Islands during carnival.
Though the book is good, there are weak aspects. First, The Rum Diary is a white person’s view of Puerto Rico; the local view is largely irrelevant. Second, Chenault is a weakly-drawn character and – arguably – suggests a sexist streak in Thompson. Finally, after the drama in The Virgin Islands, the book meanders to a close. The ending seems tacked on to me.
Thompson began The Rum Diary in 1959 and it’s remarkable that a 22-year-old could produce work of this quality. In the coming years, Thompson would make good on the potential that he shows in this novel. Then, sadly, he would come crashing back to earth.