In the spirit of celebrating New Years Eve with champagne showers, I thought I might add a little liquor to the mix and review The Rum Diary*. It’s only natural that I write this while sipping on a personal brew in preparation for my own festivities—just call me a method writer. No matter how much I indulge tonight though, I won’t be going as ham as Hunter S. Thompson. His real-life penchant for alcoholism and illegal drugs seamlessly complements the narrator’s own vices because, well, he is the narrator. Thompson is the pioneer of “gonzo journalism”, a technique in which stories are written subjectively, often from the point of view of the writer, combining both nonfictional and fictional elements. This particular novel is inspired by Thompson’s own journalistic endeavors and jaded experiences in San Juan, Puerto Rico in the 1960’s. The plot itself is a fairly simple story—journalist Paul Kemp moves to the Caribbean city from New York and finds himself surrounded by debauchery as he writes for The Daily News. The alcoholic lust exhibited by him and his coworkers is typically responsible for the pickles they end up in. There is very little accountability—they even show up drunk to work. Everyday, Kemp hits up his regular spot, Al’s, and often orders two beers and rum served neat all for himself just as the first round. I don’t trust anyone who orders rum served neat and neither should you…at least throw some ice into the mix.
Although Thompson was only 22 when he wrote this book, it reads like it’s authored by an old, exasperated soul. Kemp is dissatisfied with what this seemingly fresh, new city has to offer, which develops into a disappointment with what life itself has to offer. Alcoholism becomes a means to escape from this sobering realization, which results in Kemp quite literally drunkenly stumbling through life. His job is just a way to pass the time; it is something to do and it gives him somewhere to go. Yet, this ostensibly purposeful mission—reporting the news—proves to merely be ensconced emptiness. Thompson makes several poetic parallels between the climate of San Juan and the notion of living out an unfulfilling life. He awakens with a hopeful anticipation of what the day might bring and by noon, the “morning withered like a lost dream. The sweat was torture and the rest of the day was littered with the dead remains of all those things that might have happened, but couldn’t stand the heat” (Thompson, 191). It is this consistent tension between the optimistic belief that what he is doing matters and the dejected idea that it is actually pointless that steers Kemp along his journey. He admits, “I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey” (Thompson, 5).
On February 20, 2005, Thompson stopped “kidding himself” when he shot a bullet through his head. Several times throughout The Rum Diary, Thompson refers to the necessity of illusions in terms of tolerating both the mundane day-to-day and the most turbulent of life’s hardships. But truthfully, “the delicate illusions that get us through life can only stand so much strain” (Thompson, 169). I’ll drink to that!
Now, I know all of this appears cringingly uplifting. Interspersed among these haunting insights into human nature are some comical asides and entertaining predicaments. At one point, Kemp coyly asks a girl, “Do you mind if I get drunk and naked” (Thompson, 187)? That’s a pretty solid pickup line…and it worked. Take note, men.
My favorite books typically involve a little consciousness raising when it comes to life’s absurdities, mixed with a dash of dark comedy. This novel does just that, and more. Overall, I give it 4 out of 5 camel humps. I enjoy Thompson’s outrageous alcoholic madness and I fully intend to read Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as I have heard that his skills only increase with age, experience, and fame. On the other hand, I didn’t finish the novel completely mind-blown. While I absolutely recommend it to others, and I appreciate Thompson’s outlook on life, I will admit that the novel does not have a whole lot of substance story-wise. The plot creeps slowly along, fortified by amusing antics, until shit finally hits the fan. But if you ever find yourself asking….
Just know that you can find plenty of it right here!
*Thompson, Hunter S. The Rum Diary. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1998. Print.