Jim Lawrence's Reviews > The Rum Diary

The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson
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Nov 13, 11

Read from November 01 to 12, 2011

Thompson wrote this semi-autobiographical novel in his early twenties but put it aside, regarding it as a failure. Nearly forty years later, apparently with the encouragement of his friend Johnny 'The Colonel' Depp, he dug it out and got it published.

This is the Hunter S. Thompson of his pre-gonzo-journalism callow youth, displaying some obvious influence from Fitzgerald and Hemingway - specifically The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises, I would suggest. And yet the tone and the prose are recognisably his own; as a devotee of HST I was fascinated to note just how set his style already was. There is a certain cadence, a recognisable turn of phrase, that is distinctive. He often hits an elegiac strain that melds wounded idealism with a despairing acceptance, and in these phases he reveals his ethical and emotional character in a touchingly poetic mode. There are passages here which point forwards to the sad-beautiful 'wave' riff in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, that paean to a moment forever lost when the generation of idealistic youth gave way to the generation of swine.

The story, such as it is, tells of Paul Kemp, a disillusioned journalist in his early thirties who has moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to work on a local newspaper. The atmosphere is perpetually booze-soaked, frequently desperate and, in the end, utterly brutal. The cavalcade of drifters and losers comprised of his fellow journalists provides much comic relief and not a little pathos. Ultimately their chaotic lives seem diminished, their 'liberation' from the banality of conventional life consisting of alcoholic stupor, emotional blindness and a defeated directionlessness. Kemp begins the story in a mood of optimism - he is free, at the tail end of a ten-year period of wandering and decadence; but he ends it in a kind of limbo. There is love out there for him, in the shape of the beautiful but rather sketchily characterised wild child Chenault, and it seems he might take that path; but maybe not. He has to run, but it is unclear to him, perhaps, and to the reader, where he should run to.

The Rum Diary is not a profound book, and indeed it is difficult to discern any real point to it (no doubt this is what HST felt on finishing his manuscript): the comic aspects do not sit comfortably with his attempt at a Fitzgeraldian emotional sweep, and the hints of a sociopolitical critique of the US presence on the island seem as if they could be part of a different, much better novel. Yet it is an entertaining read nonetheless, and not necessarily for Thompson fans only.
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