Simon & Schuster, 1998, 204 pages, C$15.50 tpb, ISBN 978-0-684-85647-6
Published in 1998, in the waning dusk of Hunter S. Thompson’s career, The Rum Diary is nonetheless a formative work for the American writer/journalist: The first draft of the novel was completed in the early 1960s, as Thompson himself bounced around New York, Puerto Rico and Big Sur. Finally published (and somewhat re-written) in the late nineties, The Rum Diary offers a curious bookend to Thompson’s career. Conceived early but finished late, it offers a parallax view into the writer’s head.
The plot, unsurprisingly, concerns the adventures of an American journalist, Paul Kemp, as he makes his way from New York to San Juan as a small newspaper staffer. There are, as you may expect, a number of complications: Kemp is fascinated by a Caucasian women who flew in on the same plane as he did, and then there’s the free-flowing atmosphere of San Juan during the late fifties, a barely modernized land where rum flows as freely as water.
Let’s be blunt for a moment: If it wasn’t for the fact that this novel was written by Hunter S. Thompson, there wouldn’t be many reasons to read it. The prose is fine, but hardly transcendent and nowhere as explosive as latter-day Thompson. The plotting is generally aimless. The characters aren’t worth caring about. The Rum Diary trades on the reputation of its author as a hard-drinking rabble-rouser: Could this novel be autobiographical? Can it offer clues regarding the rest of Thompson’s work? Does it contain a Rosebud! moment when we suddenly understand the rest of Thompson’s life?
Well, no. In most aspects, it’s a fairly ordinary, aimless novel of a young man trying to survive after drinking too much in a quasi-foreign land. Puerto Rico may be American territory, but Kemp’s life in San Juan is one of an expatriate, congregating with the other English-speaking Caucasians and looking at the native population with a heavy dose of, well, fear and loathing. If the novel has one thing that can stand separate from the reputation of its author, it’s the description of San Juan as a place: Thompson clearly establishes the atmosphere of the time, the peculiarities of an environment so far away from everything else, and the bonds that form before fellow cast-offs. Still, Thompson isn’t particularly kind to Puerto Ricans, and occasional racial slurs make it through the novel. (Raw excerpts of The Rum Diary, before re-writes, can be found in Thompson’s Songs of the Doomed collection: in them, he’s even less kind.)
But it’s far more interesting to compare Kemp and Thompson, or rather Thompson before the legend and Thompson after. The Rum Diary only has a little of the madness to be found in works like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: Kemp can be moody and contemplative, whereas latter-day Thompson was belligerent and manic. (Their drugs of choice at the time may have something to do with it.) It’s tempting to go back to Kemp and see there the potential not just for latter-day Thompson, but what would have happened if the younger Thompson had been taken seriously as a writer of fiction, if he had avoided the drugs of late-sixties San Francisco, if he had found himself just as Kemp narrowly seems to find himself at the end of The Rum Diary. But that’s asking a lot of a novel that is, after all, just one that describes a not-so-young-man living it up in an exotic land. Yet that may be the only thing worth asking about a novel where drunken episodes substitute for plotting.
It goes without saying that The Rum Diary‘s first audience should be those who have considerable knowledge and sympathy for Thompson before even cracking open the first page. This is a filler in the grand tapestry of Thompson’s work, and it may even best be read at the end of his bibliography rather than at the beginning; until the first San-Juan-era version of the manuscript is made available, who’s to say how much of what we’re reading from from Thompson-the-novice and what’s from Thompson-the-veteran? His biography, Gonzo, makes it clear that publishing the novel was not a grab at literary respectability as much as it was a way to make money: a more solvent Thompson wouldn’t have allowed the publication of the novel. Doesn’t that perfectly place The Rum Diary in Thompson’s oeuvre?