“Mother of balls! The car! The vultures!”
That’s the kind of dialogue you’ll find in Hunter S. Thompson’s debut novel, The Rum Diary. In this particular scenario, protagonist Paul Kemp gets drunk with a bunch of his journalist friends (getting trashed is a recurring event in every chapter). A group of rowdy Puerto Ricans attack their car, tearing it into pieces, resulting in one of Kemp’s companions to scream the above quote.
I’d like to claim that the reason I chose to review Hunter S. Thompson’s debut novel The Rum Diary was because of my love for his other nonfiction works, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, both of which I read over winter break. In all honesty, though, the catalyst was the trailer for the recently-released film version, featuring a mostly-shirtless Johnny Depp.
I still haven’t seen the film version (which released in October to mixed reviews) due to a self-imposed, book-loving rule that I always read a book before seeing its movie—I can see why it was made into a movie, though. Aside from the obvious cool factor it gets from Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary is a fun, alcohol-filled ramble made substantial by Thompson’s signature snap-sharp wit, evident already even in his first published novel, written when he was a little baby of 22 years old.
The story follows Kemp, a wild, vagrant journalist who, after a few years migrating through and working for different newspapers in Europe, takes a job at the The Daily News in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Without purchasing a place of his own, he lives on the couches of his fellow expatriate colleagues. He describes one of their apartments: “It reminded me of a big handball court in some stench-ridden YMCA…we had no refrigerator and therefore no ice, so we drank hot rum out of dirty glasses and did our best to stay out of the place as much as possible.” Yum.
Kemp’s crew of crazies dine together at Al’s, the only place in San Juan where your stomach will be safe. Kemp says that Al’s menu “consists of beer, rum, and hamburgers. It was a pretty volatile breakfast, and several times I was drunk by the time I got to work.” None of the characters in this novel are the portraits of health—but that’s the way they like it.
The Rum Diary, though rambling and disconnected at times, ultimately explores the value of a nomadic life and if one can ever be truly free. Throughout the novel I found myself asking, “Why is Kemp still there? Everyone is fighting all the time, it’s hot, he’s not getting paid that much and the food is nasty.”
However, as the novel goes on, it becomes clear as to why Kemp stays in San Juan, aside from the semi-steady income: he craves the instability that comes with a no-strings-attached life and its subsequent freedom. Kemp’s wild, nomadic existence seems to be a lifelong protest against the conformity of the 1950s and its squeaky clean ideal of the nuclear household.
Though nonfiction is clearly Thompson at his best, his fiction is strong enough to hold its own. The Rum Diary, with its free-spirited vigor and drunken adventures, shows us that perhaps there is something to say about eating hamburgers and drinking rum for breakfast, without a home or family, in a foreign country.
Worth reading? Yes, especially for Hunter S. Thompson fans.
Time taken: At a little over 200 pages, The Rum Diary is as breezy a read as swaying palm trees in Puerto Rico.