The sad truth is that, when a novel comes down the chute of modern publishing, it is not uncommon for the Name, the Blurb, the Movie Deal, or even the Flashy Cover Art to take precedence over the text. Fine; I realize there are only so many ways for a reader to discover a work, to wade through the miles of bland pulp and find the masterpieces that (hopefully) won't be out of print and forgotten a year from now.
Now I'm not pretending that this is anything new, I'm not saying we're in a literate dark age or that in fifty years there will be no "classics" from this time (there will)--I'm just lamenting the fact that a work like this, The Rum Diary, needs phrases like "Enough booze to float a yacht and enough fear and loathing to sink it" (New York Daily News) and "A shot of Gonzo with a rum chaser" (San Francisco Chronicle) plastered on the back and front covers, respectively; that these critics see fit to view a novel through the lens of the author's reputation, that the publishers feel that that reputation is necessary to sell the work.
Because, yes, the author here is Hunter S. Thompson, the Hunter S. Thompson, who is probably the most notorious journalist alive today, but The Rum Diary is not what you expect. If you fall into it looking for Gonzo and Fear & Loathing, you're probably going to be disappointed. An earlier writeup mentions its references to The Great Gatsby: This novel is, in many ways, Thompson attempting to meet Fitzgerald's high standards. Thompson saw Gatsby as the Great American NovelTM (see the Jean-Claude Killy piece in The Great Shark Hunt), and this is Thompson's attempt at "the great Puerto Rican novel." This is literature, or at least it's supposed to be.
So, for a moment, let's drop the flashy, inaccurate quotes and pretend this is a serious novel--a novel concerning a reporter who flies to San Juan to join the staff of the San Juan Daily News, a poorly-run rag that happens to be the only English newspaper in the city. Paul Kemp is thirty-two years old, and he's beginning to toy with the idea of trading the freedom he's relied upon for the past decade for a more stable life.
Oh, and there's some rum.
But mostly it's about growing and aging and mortality. Kemp is based on Thompson: Thompson himself moved down to San Juan to work for a poorly-run newspaper. Kemp does not, however, represent the person Thompson was during the time he spent in San Juan. He was twenty-two at that time, and this young Thompson is represented by another, younger character:
He was probably twenty-four or -five and he reminded me vaguely of myself at that age--not exactly the way I was, but the way I might have seen myself if I'd stopped to think about it.
The character's name is Addison Fritz Yeamon ("Yeamon" to his friends and "Fritz" to his girl), a wild, unruly creature who lives in a shack twenty miles from town, drives a motor-scooter, and sends for his exotic girlfriend once he's settled in in San Juan. Thompson, of course, drove a motor-scooter, lived in a shack outside of town, and sent for his commonlaw wife, Sandy Conklin, not long after moving to San Juan. Yeamon, while working for the Daily News, tries to pass off a twenty-six page story that is brilliant, full of dialogue, and completely unusable for the paper, which happens to represent very well the type of stories Thompson is apt to write.
The strength of this novel is the interplay between Yeamon and Kemp, the tragic maturation Thompson is trying to describe, the loss of "balls," as he puts it, over the period of time between ones early twenties and early thirties. This is a novel that was begun in 1959, when Thompson was twenty-two years old, finished, revised, sold, and then due to contractual issues and, perhaps, the need for another rewrite, it was not published. Had it been released at that time (the early sixties), I suggest it would have been a very different novel. The Rum Diary was not published until 1998, and it represents a wholly more mature writer: it strikes me as the result of a dialogue between an older Thompson and the wild youth he was during the early drafts of this book. His narrator twice discusses, as he describes it, "the hump" he's passing (or has passed) over. First, toward the center of the novel, he says
Because down in my gut I wanted nothing more than a clean bed and a bright room and something solid to call my own at least until I got tired of it. There was an awful suspicion in my mind that I'd finally gone over the hump, and the worst thing about it was that I didn't feel tragic at all, but only weary, and sort of comfortably detatched.
Then, on the final page of the piece,
"Well," [Sala] said, "I hope to God I never make forty--I wouldn't know what to do with myself."
"You might," I said. "We're over the hump, Robert. The ride gets pretty ugly from here on in."
Thompson himself dealt with this "hump," this need to settle down; after living in New York for a short period of time, traveling around the Caribbean and South America while freelancing, living in San Francisco and spending his time with the Hell's Angels, going back to his native Louisville, Kentucky, and so on, he decided to buy a property near Aspen, Colerado. The popular myth suggests that Thompson is a wild, mad, pill-popping freak of some sort. This novel presents a different, truly conflicted man.
Not to say that this is a one-note piece: Thompson is an excellent writer and always has been. He describes the seediness of the lower rung of journalism in a way few writers could. He explains, in a single paragraph, the phenomenon of ugliness and hate that has creeped into writing of all kinds (at least in this country) in the last fifty years:
"Happy," I muttered, trying to pin the word down. But it is one of those words, like Love, that I have never quite understood. Most people who deal in words don't have much faith in them and I am no exception--especially the big ones like Happy and Love and Honest and Strong. They are too elusive and far too relative when you compare them to sharp, mean little words like Punk and Cheap and Phony. I feel at home with these, because they're scrawny and easy to pin, but the big ones are tough and it takes either a priest or a fool to use them with any confidence.
This novel is indeed an excellent work; if not exactly endowed with the weight of such a novel as Gatsby, which Thompson had intended, the may yet be that mythical "great Puerto Rican novel."
I'll close with one final quotation from the work--an apt metaphor (though he never describes it as such) for the human condition comparable to Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus.
The surf was high and I felt a combination of fear and eagerness as I took off my clothes and walked toward it. In the backlash of a huge wave I plunged in and let it suck me out to sea. Moments later I was hurtling back toward the beach on top of a long white breaker that carried me along like a torpedo. Then it spun me around like a dead fish and slammed me on the sand so hard that my back was raw for days afterward.
I kept at it as long as I could stand up, riding out with the riptide and waiting for the next big one to throw me back at the beach.
The Rum Diary : The Long Lost Novel by Hunter S. Thompson
204 pages, © 1998, Gonzo International Corp.
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 0-684-85647-6 (Paperback)
All the block quotations in this writeup are Copyright © Hunter S. Thompson;
permission to reproduce these excerpts has been requested, though no response has yet been received
This writeup is CST Approved.