The Rum Diary
By Hunter S. Thompson
Bloomsbury Publishing, RRP £7.99, pp 224
Hunter S. Thompson’s long-lost first novel, written in the early 1960s, by no means portrays naivety, but gives us a rare insight into far more youthful and - let's not say innocent - aspirational style of writing for him.
Although The Rum Diary still boasts Thompson’s obscene nature, it is not nearly as ostentatiously outrageous as his widely celebrated Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which is so hardcore the pages themselves tend go out of their way to jump out and ‘slap you about a bit.’
You’d be foolish to think, however, that the story's lack of psychedelia abandons it as a softcore romp in comparison to Thompson’s usual literary pornography. It is still written in the same fast-paced, shit-kicking style that we have so admirably come to associate with him.
The title itself suggests Thompson’s love for inebriating substances - in him we trust to name his earliest published work, after a journal dedicated to the consumption of hard liquor.
It is often overlooked that this novel was in a way, a Gonzo novel in its early development as style. Therefore, what is so fascinating about this novel is its element of semi- reality centered around his reporting work in Puerto Rico.
Based on the island of San Juan, Puerto Rico, during its economic Yankee ‘Boom’ of the post-war 1950s, Thompson’s protagonist and itinerant Journalist Paul Kemp leaves New York, after accepting a job at The Daily News, a small English newspaper. In good-old Hunter S. Thompson fashion, however, this book quickly turns into a tale of perverted individuals, immoderate violence and alcohol-fuelled lust. What’s more, it is a story of pessimistic cynicism and fear of going “over the hump”: a sign of Thompson’s constant torment at his youth slipping away.
The book unravels as we follow Kemp through the half-native/half-American inhabited San Juan, as he desperately tries to figure out which steps to take next in his life. You're led to believe that he was once a grab-life-by-the-balls kind of character in his early days. Kemp still sometimes seems to possess a classic devil-may-care attitude, but now life has petered out at the ripe old age of thirty-one, after too many years of worthless jobs and meaningless frolicking on the road.
The island becomes his purgatory and only intensifies his anxiety over his dead-end lifestyle. The place’s raucous inhabitants and maddening “goddamn heat” forces a realisation from a withering arrogance, that you can only live your life on the basis of single serving jobs and one-way tickets for so long:
“I was a seeker, a mover, a malcontent and at times a stupid hell-raiser. I was never idle long enough to do much thinking. At the same time I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause. It was the tension between these two poles- a restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other- that kept me going.”
The plot lies in Kemp’s darkening mood as his excitement at landing in a tropical paradise surrounded by new opportunities, eventually turns into an inescapable hell where he is surrounded by “phonies and pricks:”
“When the sun got hot enough it burned away all the illusions and I saw the place as it was- cheap, sullen, and garish- nothing good was going to happen here.”
Kemp’s only break from reality is the infallible supply of rum on the island and the messy characters that he shares a few shots with.
The book contains a good range of characters, but all them become a pain in Kemp’s arse in some form or another and add to his ever sobering thoughts as they inspire and depress him at the same time.
There’s Lotterman, the hot-headed and completely corrupt ex-communist owner of nespaper, who’s constantly talking about phonies or nuts in a town where, apparently, you can only survive if you’re a con man or crazy; the psychotic and totally bizarre Moberg, who enjoys urinating on photocopying machines in drunken frenzies; Yeamon, a stubborn and violent thug who tugs Kemp head-first into a world of terrifying nights that include conflict, murder and vicious police brutality; and Sala, who takes the role of Kemp’s best-friend and would shoot everyone “if only he had a god-damn Luger.”
All of them, uncoincidently, are money-hungry alcoholics who find themselves drawn to the flexible hours and pay of freelance journalism and in some part are the swine of the earth, under Kemp’s silent scrutiny:
“Some of them were more journalists than vagrants, and others were more vagrants than journalists – but with few exceptions they were part-time, freelance, would-be foreign correspondents who, for one reason or another, lived at several removes from the journalistic establishment….. Puerto Rico was a backwater and the Daily News was staffed mainly by ill-tempered wandering rabble. They moved erratically, on the winds of rumor and opportunity, all over Europe, Latin America and the Far East.”
Collectively, they all contribute to Kemp’s increasingly obvious paranoia that the unknown key to contentment that he has been chasing all these years is swiftly becoming out of reach, and his unsettlement that the island will be his downfall is racing to catch-up with him.
His unease reaches breaking-point when he finds himself ensnared in a perilous love-triangle with the sweet but seductive Chenault and her boyfriend, the repressive Yeamon. Unsurprisingly, after years of living the greedy freelance journo lifestyle, Kemp finds himself lacking in willpower:
“And then in the back of my brain a little melodramatic voice was saying, ‘And this concludes The Adventures of Paul Kemp, the Drunken Journalist. He read the signs and saw it coming, but he was too much of a lecher to step out of the way.’ Then I was stepping out of my shorts and into the shower with Chenault, keeping my eyes tightly shut while my soul fought a hopeless battle with my groin."
For every action there is a reaction and naturally Kemp’s immoral acts leave him fighting for his freedom and sanity, as the risk of DTs is ever present with the right number of shots and he suffers “an idle tension that builds up in places where men sweat twenty-four hours a day.”
If there is one aspect that will find criticism within this book, it’s that although it ends with an exciting and unforseen climax, it does so rather abruptly and leaves the reader hanging in a fashion that is not altogether pleasant - likely that Thompson's distractable self found a later and greater project and did not quite put his heart into the ending this one deserved. By "project", I mean probably mescaline.
Despite this, Thompson’s Hemmingwayesque style and vividly dark and cynical sense of humour make’s this novel one sure to never collect dust on your shelf, if only for the stoical Paul Kemp who could possibly be the most charismatic fictional character since James Bond. A man that's found the perfect balance between hardly working, incessant drinking of cheap rum and the ability to charm rich women into one-night stands.
If you’re looking for a hilarious read, packed with shameful laughs and impure sex, as well as a thrilling climax, then The Rum Diary is perfect for you to forget about the tediousness of your everyday life and indulge yourself in warmer and seedier horizons that we all secretly wish we could set sail for. It’s enough to want to make you pack your bags and catch the next flight heading to the Caribbean. Better stop at the off-license for some rum first, though.