By the time I was finished reading Hunter S. Thompson’s novel, “The Rum Diary,” I was a little surprised the paperback didn’t include a Captain Morgan-sponsored page in the middle with a flap that could be pulled back, freeing delicious aromas of rum, like the enticing trick glossy magazines pull off on women with their favorite fragrances.
The Chanel No. 5 for a quivering alcoholic, the Captain could have made big business with its page. It could have offered a scent and included a coupon for a 30 percent off bottle of rum, enticing readers to support the Captain brand while they indulge in Thompson’s chapters of alcoholic and physical excess. I’m not blatantly encouraging alcoholism or reading while impaired – Thompson does that himself here.
Every other page drips with booze, whether its drinking on the porch at Al’s or a couple of swigs of hot rum on the way out to work or the jingling of liquor and ice in the dark of midnight or a bottle saved for a lover and a lonely place on a Puerto Rican beach. It’s overbearing, this constant torturing of livers while dulling the melancholy moments Paul Kemp – Thompson’s first-person narrator – stumbles into daily during his time in San Juan.
The San Francisco Chronicle has this blurb on the cover of my book: “Crackling, twisted, searing, paced to a deft prose rhythm … A shot of Gonzo with a rum chaser.” I think that’s about accurate in its description of “The Rum Diary.” It’s a greatly entertaining read filled with keen observations and piercing scenes of self-awareness, but God help the young person who turns this novel into its own drinking game. If you drank every time Kemp does, you wouldn’t make it past Chapter 3.
In honor of Thompson, here is a “cocktail” of thoughts on the book:
1. Thompson has long been referred to as the “godfather of Gonzo journalism,” a style meant to essentially allow the reader to live the story vicariously through the writer (and a style that is utilized less than ever today it seems), and we get to see the early forming of his writing voice. This book wasn’t published until 1998, but Thompson wrote it in the early 60s, beginning when he was 22. True to Gonzo writing, large portions of the book are descriptions – setting scenes and observing people and their interactions. It’s difficult to describe people and places in vivid detail without rambling to great lengths, but Thompson does that.
More importantly for the reader, he interprets who and what he is describing. At times, it feels like we come to know the people sitting around the bar with Thompson, or the social currents of the towns he’s running through, without ever hearing from them. Thompson is a master at reading body language and drawing thoughts, if not conclusions, from the way people speak and act with each other (in other words, normal every-day life).
2. Perhaps because Gonzo writing, in a way, is viewed as Thompson’s space alone, a place of the craft that nobody has dared tried to occupy since he forfeited his reign, I wondered if “The Rum Diary” is a book that would even be published today. I don’t mean books that rely heavily on observations or great writers describing poignant scenes – there are a lot of phenomenal writers who do that today. I mean a book solely about a writer indulging in a place and its way of life, and then coming back with a written version of it for everyone who couldn’t be there at that time. It’s part memoir, part travel book, part history, part traditional journalism and storytelling, parts of many things.
I think it’s telling that the manuscript sat somewhere in Thompson’s possession for more than 30 years before finally being turned into a published novel. Thompson didn’t change the story itself. He shopped it around in the 60s, received a bunch of rejections, and then stashed it away and moved on with his life and career. What changed? Thompson changed. He became this brilliant writer and thinker and visionary, a very accomplished man, and suddenly a writer with that pedigree has a crazy unpublished novel? Gee, let’s publish it!
So that’s what Simon and Schuster did about 14 years ago, seven years before Thompson died. Because the book doesn’t fit neatly into a box – it’s not a biography, it’s not a crime thriller, it’s not about a teenage vampire – I wonder if the book publishing business would take a chance on something like “The Rum Diary” today. I don’t have anything close to an answer, I just wonder.
3. One of the odder things about the book was the narrative Thompson crafted considering his age. His character, Kemp, was in his early 30s, so about a decade older than Thompson himself when he wrote the book, and yet the story revolved around the idea of getting old, of being washed up, of regret, or looking back late in life and realizing everything a person could squander. I don’t know what motivated Thompson to write that kind of story at that age. He was college-age when Thompson spent time in Puerto Rico, so maybe it was watching and examining the older people he worked with at the San Juan papers. Maybe Thompson was telling their stories mixed with his own experiences of alcoholism and lust. What was Thompson’s motivation for that particular story? That’s the chief unanswered question for me.
4. One of the characteristics I liked so much about this book is its blunt realism. There are countless moments of self-doubt and self-pity and joy and anger and peace and satisfaction – this entire spectrum of human emotion. It’s all very raw, and Thompson doesn’t attempt to sugarcoat any of it. When Paul Kemp looks back on what he left in New York and what he did/didn’t do in Puerto Rico and all of the regrets lining the road in between those two places, you genuinely feel what it’s like for him. You feel what it’s like to misplay your cards and be anchorless. I think many people would find at least one core emotion in “The Rum Diary” that they can relate with, because nothing is hidden. It’s not a story with a happy ending. It’s a story with good deeds and terrible ones, too.
This struck me because it seemed to be a direct contradiction of a lot of books and films we consume today. This isn’t a complaint, per se. Popular culture is simple entertainment before historians and purveyors of pop culture opinions take it and analyze it and hold it up on a stick to reflect a time and place – and, let it be known, those people are brilliant and allow us to remember things – and so, most of the time, I just want to be entertained, too. I don’t always want to think deeply about a book or movie. But I can’t help but notice a trend, and it’s summed up by a question: In your entertainment, do you prefer realism or escapism?
It’s not a trick question, nor is there a “right” answer (“both” is a perfectly reasonable answer). But it’s ironic to me that even when we choose escape, we are mining a work of art for its underlying meaning – its true meaning. There’s no mining when it comes to “The Rum Diary.” It’s all raw and exposed, and it comes from Thompson’s desire to share an experience with his readers, not simply craft a warming story.
Was that the motivation behind his narrative? Did he realize that the story unfolding around him in Puerto Rico is a universal one, a story that was separated from him only by time itself? Did he see himself in 10 years through those rum goggles of his? We’ll never really know.
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