Hunter S. Thompson was never a writer to whom I’d properly given my time. Having watched Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas I presumed I’d gotten a well-rounded insight into his subject and style, but then I read The Rum Diary and soon began stomping around the house in fits of gusto and self-chastisement.
The novel opens with a quotation from Dark Eileen O’Connell,
My rider of the bright eyes,
What happened you yesterday?
I thought you in my heart,
When I bought you your fine clothes,
A man the world could not slay.
that does set you up for the undertones of the novel. The preface — outlining how the infamous Al’s Backyard came to be — ends with Paul Kemp, the main character, acknowledging that,
I shared a vagrant optimism that some of us were making progress [...] At the same time, I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey. 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.
This book trumped a lot of opinions I had about first person narrative, mainly the idea of explicit intent — ‘Show don’t tell’. Thompson uses it in such a way that it’s reflective, not slipshod or overbearing, and fits into Kemp’s characterisation. He often tells you something while showing it, and somehow it’s never unnecessary. There is a great deal of craft in Thompson’s writing, and the concise balance between characterisation and narrative is what propelled me through the novel.
Now that I’ve gushed about technical prowess, let’s have a look at the story itself.
Paul Kemp is a reporter from New York who moves to Puerto Rico to start working for the San Juan Daily News. On the plane over he makes a fool of himself trying to get the attention of a pretty blonde lady, whom we later learn is called Chenault.
The editor of the San Juan Daily News, Ed Lotterman, an ex-communist, is a nervous breakdown waiting to happen. Kemp soon becomes friends with the paper’s professional photographer, Bob Sala, who shows him to Al’s Backyard, and complains endlessly about every aspect of his life. Yeamon, another American working for the News, is a volatile character, going steady with Chenault, and often abusing her. Throughout Kemp’s stay in San Juan, he becomes more and more aware of the tensions in the News’ office and the instability of both its employees and editor. He witnesses numerous unsettling events in Puerto Rico — the St. Thomas carnival (in which Chenault is abducted), riots outside the News’ offices, police brutality and apathy — and all the while I had to admit that Kemp is right when he saw himself “blown and buffeted in the rotten winds of life”.
The novel’s title rightly suggests that it’s written as a retrospective account, but it still retains a sense of immediacy when the plot moves fast. I was surprised to find out that The Rum Diary was Thompson’s second novel — it shows a remarkable vision from a budding writer. Kemp is a reporter who fears he’s gone over the hill, and halfway through the novel when he begins investing in a car and an apartment and openly acknowledges that he wants to settle down, it’s clear he’s not the wild young free radical he thinks he is. It’s conveyed so convincingly, so effortlessly, that it really did shock me when I discovered that Thompson was only twenty-two when he wrote it.
More than the characterisation, and plot, and subject, which are all skillfully done, the descriptions of Puerto Rico in 1960 are beautiful. In Chapter Twelve, Kemp visits a remote beach in Puerto Rico that ‘The General’ Zimberger wants to turn into a resort:
The minute I saw it I felt that here was the place I’d been looking for. We drove across another cane field and then through a grove of palms. [...] My first feeling was a wild desire to drive a stake in the sand and claim the place for myself. The beach was white as salt, and cut off from the world by a ring of steep hills that faced the sea. We were on the edge of a large bay and the water was that clear, turquoise color that you get with a white sand bottom. I had never seen such a place. I wanted to take off all my clothes and never wear them again.
Thompson also describes the hot pressure of a crowded street in St. Thomas with equal artistry:
The sound was incredible; people were singing and stomping and screaming. Here and there I saw tourists trying to get out of it, but most of them were carried along in the mob. The bands moved off together, heading down the main street. Behind them the crowd linked arms, thirty abreast, blocking the street and both sidewalks — chanting the music as they jerked and staggered along.
The final words of the story expose Thompson’s attention to detail, and the immediacy of the descriptions:
Voices rose and fell in the house next door and the raucous sound of a jukebox came from a bar down the street. Sounds of a San Juan night, drifting across the city through layers of humid air; sounds of life and movement, people getting ready and people giving up, the sound of hope and the sound of hanging on, and behind them all, the quiet, deadly ticking of a thousand hungry clocks, the lonely sound of time passing in the long Caribbean night.
I know the title of this blog post is ‘Reviewing The Rum Diary‘, which implies criticism as well as assessment, but, hard as I’ve tried, I simply can’t find anything to criticise in this novel — not that it’s ‘perfect’, that’s a silly notion, but rather that its merits far outweigh any minor critique that I have.
Read it. And then watch the film. But preferably read it.