Whoever would have thought that Hunter S. Thompson had a soft, sensitive side, a deeply emotional side, pained by loneliness? The Rum Diary is a love story, the only love story Thompson ever wrote, and in my opinion, it’s his best work. Love without romance is not easy to pull off. Sex without romance is a piece of cake, which is what we usually get in dick lit. But The Rum Diary isn’t porno. There’s not much graphic sex in this book, just a bit at the end, by which time you’re aching for it. This is a love story.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson’s most acclaimed work, has long been one of my all-time favorite Vegas novels, but the characters in FALILV are more like caricatures, the scenes like cartoons. Brilliant caricatures, hilarious cartoons, but the emotional depth is limited to sarcasm, cynicism, irony, perplexity, and futility. Ralph Steadman’s illustrations are perfect. Although FALILV is generally classified as a novel, there’s no story to it, no plot. It’s a series of short, funny, scary, crazy experiences, some of them true, many too fantastic to be true, mostly disconnected from each other, other than by chronology. The Rum Diary, on the other hand, is a real story, filled with sadness, loneliness, self-contemplation, fear of failure, and finally, when you least expect it, love.
When you pick up a book by Hunter Thompson—any book—you expect to find a wise-cracking smart-ass with a perspective filtered through not only grime-tinted lenses, but a lot of hard liquor and an assortment of psychotropic drugs. The only drug of note in The Rum Diary is alcohol, which in Puerto Rico means rum, but that wise-cracking, smart-ass story-teller is front and center, as expected.
The narrator, Paul Kemp, is a young newspaper reporter from New York who jumps at a chance to work on a small English-language paper being published in Puerto Rico. Boarding the plane in New York, headed for San Juan, Kemp sees a girl getting onto the same flight:
“I pegged her as a tourist, a wild young secretary going down to the Caribbean for a two-week romp. She had a fine little body and an impatient way of standing that indicated a mass of stored-up energy. I watched her intently, smiling, feeling the ale in my veins, waiting for her to turn around for a swift contact with the eyes.”
But before he manages to make her acquaintance, he makes a fool of himself (he’s drunk), by appearing to attack and bully an old man, creating enough of a scene that he almost gets himself arrested by airport officials. The power of this scene comes from the fact that the girl watches his humiliation. Who’s this young tough guy, drunk on his ass, trying to push around a feeble old man who’s just minding his business? This is the type of sad humor we find over and over in The Rum Diary. Because of his horrible first impression, Kemp is always uncomfortable in the girl’s presence. He doesn’t like being around her, but socially, he can’t always avoid her.
At the San Juan newspaper office, he finds “…tired, beer-bellied old hacks who wanted nothing more than to live out their days in peace before a bunch of lunatics ripped the world in half.” These guys drink rum for breakfast.
Kemp soon learns that the girl from the plane (Chenault) is the girlfriend of one of the men (Yeamon) in his circle of acquaintances. He sees her repeatedly in social circumstances and must silently endure both her physically affectionate behavior toward Yeamon, and Yeamon’s cruel behavior toward her. (Yeamon is verbally abusive to her and at one point hits her hard enough to knock her down.)
One night at a wild party, Kemp watches helplessly as Chenault, in a state of drunken abandon, publicly humiliates herself, essentially dancing naked until she’s carried off by strangers for some kind of private party (or worse). What is so powerful about this scene is that the story opened with him embarrassing himself in front of her. Her humiliation is so bad that she’s thrown out by her boyfriend and ostracized by one and all. Kemp is so distraught by this that he hires a cab and returns to the party scene the following day, trying to find her, to no avail. For all he knows, she’s dead. Her boyfriend, Yeamon, says he couldn’t care less; in his words, “She’s just a whore.”
The next day, she shows up at Kemp’s apartment.
She was wearing the same clothes, but now she looked haggard and dirty. The delicate illusions that get us through life can only stand so much strain—and now, looking at Chenault, I wanted to slam the door and go back to bed.
The story has now come full circle. They’re face to face. Thompson never says that Kemp is thinking, “She’s just like me,” but having already expressed his worry about ruining himself as a result of his “strange and ungovernable instincts,” you know this is what Kemp is thinking. No romance. It’s just what happened. They’re two of a kind, both alone, neither with any easy options (Kemp having just lost his job), both in need of hope more than anything, and comfort. The closest Thompson comes to describing this bond is right after Kemp invites her in:
She kept staring at me with an expression that made me more nervous than ever. It was humiliation and shock, I suppose, but there was something else in it—a shade of sadness and amusement that was almost a smile.
Kemp and Chenault have never had a conversation. The only thing they know they have in common is that they’re both capable of getting so sloshed they might embarrass themselves, or anyone with them, in public. But from the moment he closes the door behind her, he treats her so gently, so tenderly, so aware of her fragility, that these few scenes of them together just touch your heart. It’s unexpected. He seemed tougher than that, colder than that, less needy than that.
In and around the love story at the center of this novel, there are fistfights and riots and murders and barrels of rum being swilled. San Juan in the 1950s was a wild and crazy place if Thompson’s depiction of it is true. Many of the scenes are charged with emotions, anger chief among them.
Only two of Thompson’s many books are considered “novels”—Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Rum Diary. But The Rum Diary was written prior to any of Thompson’s other published works. The novel had been rejected by numerous publishers. Thompson shelved it. And five or six years later, Hells Angels (1966), an exposé/documentary, became his first published book. It wasn’t until 1998 that The Rum Diary, written in the early 60s, was published.
Both FALILV and The Rum Diary have been made into Hollywood films, both starring Johnny Depp as the narrator. I walked out on FALILV. It just wasn’t working for me. Cinematic depictions of the effects of psychedelic drugs never work for me. I haven’t seen The Rum Diary.
I suspect that if the publishers who rejected this book in the early 1960s hadn’t done so, Thompson’s career might have been much different. Had an editor recognized what a great novel this was, and had The Rum Diary been Thompson’s first published book, he may have become a novelist, as opposed to a journalist. But Hells Angels was rightfully acclaimed and it was pretty much gonzo journalism from then on.
Hardcore HST fans will definitely note that his early writing style was not quite developed to the level of his later unmistakable Gonzo brilliance. The writing’s a bit more forced in places, the dialogue’s a bit rougher; but to think that he wrote this novel in his early 20s… Whew! What a phenomenal talent.
If you’re a fan of Thompson’s and you haven’t read The Rum Diary, you’re missing what I think is his best work as a writer. If you’re not a fan of Thompson’s, The Rum Diary is so different from his other books that you might want to give it a try. Especially if you like bittersweet (heavy on the bitter) love. With no romance.
Okay, enough of the “classics.” Next Monday (20Aug12) I’ll review four books, all more contemporary, less well-known, and more controversial.— A.S.