Friday, August 04, 2006

The Rum Diary, by Hunter S. Thompson

(hb; 1959, 1998)

From the inside flap:

The Rum Diary was begun in 1959 by a then-twenty-two year old Hunter S. Thompson. It was his first novel, and he told his friend, the author William Kennedy, that The Rum Diary would 'in a twisted way... do for San Juan what Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises did for Paris.' In Paul Kemp, the novel's hero, there are echoes of young Thompson, who was himself honing his wildly musical writing style as one of the 'ill-tempered wandering rabble' on the staff at the San Juan Daily News at the time. 'I shared a dark suspicion,' Kemp says, 'that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between these two poles –a restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other – that kept me going.'

The Rum Diary is a brilliantly tangled love story of jealousy, treachery and violent alcohol lust in the Caribbean boomtown that was San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the late 1950s. 'It was a gold rush,' says the author. 'There were naked people everywhere and we had credit.'

“Puerto Rico was an unspoiled tropical paradise in those days – before Castro, before JFK, before civil rights and moonwalks and even before drugs – but the San Juan Daily News was a vortex and a snakepit of all the new corrupt schemes and plots and greedmongers who swarmed in...”


Paul Kemp, a thirty-two year-old, itinerant journalist, winds up in San Juan, a small island town, where there's little to do but get drunk, get laid, and find new ways to work within a commercially corrupt system.

The “gonzo” element – the chemical-fueled insane asides that would predominate Thompson's later writings – is subdued by the pervasive cynicism of most of the characters, all of them alcohol-, sex- or money-mad (or all three). It's bleakly amusing, at times a sorrowful novel, especially when Kemp looks back on what he views as his wasted life, careering in a futile career, while the world goes to exploitative hell.

Kemp is further unquieted by the presence of Chenault, a beautiful, nature-friendly Connecticut girl, who awakens unwanted desires within him, even as she cavorts (often half-naked) with one of his drinking buddies, Yeamon, a wild-tempered, fist-throwing fellow journalist.

Engaging novel, this. Reading this felt like spending a few months in a seedy island town with a charming if tired friend, as Thompson's images and language are indelible and delectable (in a black-funny way).

The film version is set to be released in 2011.

Johnny Depp is set to play Paul Kemp. Amber Heard is set to play Chenault. Aaron Eckhardt is set to play Sanderson. Richard Jenkins is set to play Lotterman. Michael Rispoli is set to play Bob Sala.

Bruce Robinson, who penned the film's script, is directing.

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