By Hunter S. Thompson
Published November 2, 1998
Reviewed January 4, 2009
Originally reviewed at: Helium
Since acclaimed journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide in 2005, there have been two schools of thought on his legacy. The most prevalent one is the “Uncle Duke” viewpoint of free-wheeling brilliant lunatic, dispensing acidic barbs while snorting cocaine and pausing occasionally to fire a shotgun into the darkness. This view is supported heavily by Thompson’s own “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and never-ending stories from his friends and editors, collected in the recent “Gonzo” book and documentary.
The other viewpoint, fiercely defended by his wife Anita in “The Gonzo Way,” is that Thompson was a writer in the purest sense of the word, a man who chose every word carefully and did so with the fervent belief that he could find truth and understanding in them. To find proof of this, one need look no further than “The Rum Diary,” the novel he began when he was 22 and which was finally published 40 years later. It’s an outlier from his journalistic body of work, which makes it all the more remarkable that it’s conceivably his best book after “Vegas.”
“The Rum Diary” tells the story of Paul Kemp, a journalist who heads to San Juan to take a job at the San Juan Daily News, a dying paper being put out by an eclectic group of drunkards and drifters. Kemp, who is coming to a realization of how long he’s been part of that group, finds himself pulled along in their binges and paycheck disputes, trying to find contentment and a sense of connection in a city that cannot figure out how to clean itself up.
Thompson’s early letters, reprinted in the fantastic collections “Fear and Loathing in America” and “The Proud Highway,” show that he approached this novel in much the same way most authors approach their first novels – their ticket to wealth and a place alongside literary icons. Emulation is clearly present here, with Kemp regularly engaging in introspections that match F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lyrically discursive characters. On the other side, several sentences clearly attempt Ernest Hemingway’s gift for grand meaning in a dozen words or less.
However, Fitzgerald would have never called a cocktail party “a dull sideshow full of quacks and clowns and philistines with gimp mentalities,” and Hemingway’s streamlined approach would founder in the decadent depravity of a St. Thomas carnival. “The Rum Diary” could never be called derivative, as Thompson’s voice – anarchic, observant and holding an angry sense of humor – is clear in every page. It’s almost purer in a way, free of the hallucinatory rambling that distinguishes his later work but still unafraid to call the swine by name.
Kemp’s reflections are helped along by the group of people he is surrounded with, who could be called eclectic if you wanted to be nice and degenerates if you wanted to be honest. Sanderson, a PR man whose constant wheeling and dealing hide a mask-like persona on par with Jay Gatsby; Sala, the staff photographer and Kemp’s drinking partner who sees himself at war with everyone else; and Yeamon, a prototype of “Vegas’s” Dr. Gonzo, ostensibly good-natured but with a mean spirit at the end of an evening. It’s an excellent cast of journalists, and Thompson fills them with that profession’s typical tension and drunkenness.
And like any good journalist, Thompson puts his thought to trying to understand them and their world. When not focusing on the excellent dialogue, the majority of “The Rum Diary” is given over to Fitzgerald-inspired musings on romance, living with “vagrant addresses” and just how long any one place’s peace can last. Even in the book’s weakest scenes, where Kemp is called to write articles promoting an upcoming resort, have odd and quiet thoughts on selling out.
It’s an elegiac tone in many respects, as Kemp – barely past 30 – looks back on his short life and marvels how quickly he became tired of it: “But it was pure masturbation, because down in my gut I wanted nothing more than a clean bed and a bright room and something solid to call my own at least until I got rid of it. There was an awful suspicion in my mind that I’d gone over the hump, and the worst thing about it was that I didn’t feel tragic at all, but only weary, and sort of comfortably detached.”
The final product is certainly not pure 1959 Thompson – years of letters speak of constant revision, and William McKeen’s “Outlaw Journalist” reports he stole the manuscript from his publisher for a final edit – but the fact that a young writer conceived of such a book and turned it into what it is speaks worlds of his talent. Anyone who reads this book for gonzo will not find that (at least to Thompson’s typical extremes), but if they continue they will find “The Rum Diary” deserves to be called literature.