Ace November 1998
The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson (Simon and Schuster). Reviewed by Dan Elkinson.
Hunter S. Thompson’s long lost novel The Rum Diary should be enjoyed like hot buttered rum should be sipped. Slowly. The result is an encompassing drunkenness experienced in stomach and mind, where sense may only be revealed after long periods of thought. The Rum Diary was Thompson’s first work of fiction, but became a lost gem when the gust of 1960s literature blew it aside. Told in his gonzo journalistic style, this autobiographical account of a journalist working fo the San Juan Daily News in the 1950s results in a rollercoaster of a story felt in the gut. Involving thrilling joys and troubling fears, his vividly colorful report reveals a number of intriguing struggles between darkness and light, framing raw content with the tale’s tropical setting.
San Juan in the fifties, with its U.S. subseidized government, is viewed by outsiders as a glorious island paradise on the cusp of economic boom. Miami’s swanky tourists pouring money into the casinos, and wealthy prospectors of luxury hotels are contrasted by the native population which remains living in tin shacks with no toilets. Thompson’s main character, the vagrant journalist and idealistic seeker Paul Kemp, arrives on the scene after years of chasing stories all over the world, while struggling with his own internal conflicts. Until his arrival on this island where the cool, salty, healthy morning air is always overtaken by the sweaty sultry afternoon heat. Kemp’s self indulgent lifestyle and nonchalant confidence was somehow kept at bay by an optimism that his writing was truly in pursuit of ideals real and worthy. However, his arrival at the Daily News puts him in contact with a free-lance staff consisting of madmen, perverts, drunks, and con men.
With an endless supply of rum and plenty of people to drink it with, coupled with the realization that the paper could fold at any moment, Kemp begins to be overtaken by an impending sense of doom. Sleeping on beaches, casual sex, and frequent rum drinking binges provide carnal pleasures for Kemp, but two powerful episodes, one involving police brutality, and the other a rape, leave him reconsidering the laid back drunken lifestyle he’d been enjoying since his arrival on the island.
Wondering if his misguided ways were a result of a false idealism experienced as a restless youth, he is faced with a decision about the future.
This maturing journalist begins to look for the road to peace and respectability when he realizes than an ugly and disappointing side of human nature can still exist in such a beautiful place. Can he finally settle down and make a good life for himself, or must his potentially senseless quest continue, carrying him on to yet another assignment, in another far off place.