Hunter S. Thompson's first attempt at a novel based upon his life experience living on the island of Puerto Rico in the 50s while working for various rags like the San Juan Star. It is heavily laced with subtle references to The Great Gatsby, a novel which Hunter typed over himself many times in order to get a feel for what it felt like to write such great words.

Lost in obscurity for year and years, it eventually reached published form finally in the last few years of the 20th century.

I prefer my paperback version over the hardcover. Easier to fit in my backpack.

The story itself follows Paul Kemp through numerous misadventures as a journalist working for a dying American-language newspaper in Puerto Rico during its boom of the late 50s. Many of the characters in the book are both shades of HST and his friends and the more times you read it, the more times you'll find some deeper meaning to relate to.

Far from the usual gonzo journalism most people turn to the good doctor for, it's still a read worth its own weight -- especially considering how much time and effort HST put into it.

The Rum Diary is also a band from Cotati, California; which plays an atmospheric/soundtrack/emo style of music using a range of instruments including a moog, two basses, and two drums, in recordings. First appearing on Don Lee Records' Translation.Music CD compilation, which was packaged in a square manilla envelop and included a puzzle piece within, and a 1 cent stamp on the outside as part of the design.

The band's sound is airy and sort of blends in the background in a similar fashion as a Galaxie 500 or Jupiter Sun song; but with the indie tones of bands like Modest Mouse, Mogwai, and Radiohead's music, using echoing drum beats and lonely vocals. At live shows, they usually project old film pieces on the backstage as the show progresses.

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: 0-684-85521-6
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.

Director: Bruce Robinson
Writers: Bruce Robinson (screenplay), Hunter S. Thompson (novel)
Release Date: October 28, 2011 (USA)
Rated: R for nudity, brief drug use, and graphic violence
Runtime: 120 minutes
Cast: Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins, and Giovanni Ribisi

The Rum Diary is the 2011 movie based upon Hunter S. Thompson’s early novel that didn't end up being published until 1998. Thompson wrote Rum Diary while living in Puerto Rico and based it upon his experiences working for a local press, the San Juan Star. This film marks Bruce Robinson’s first return to directing since the ill-fated Jennifer 8 released in 1992.

Johnny Depp and Hunter S. Thompson team up for a second time in Rum Diary—only this time, Thompson’s already pulled the trigger.

In Rum Diary, Johnny Depp plays Paul Kemp (aka Hunter S. Thompson), a struggling writer with a taste for alcohol and menthols, who takes an internship at a failing newspaper in the slums of Puerto Rico. Alongside Depp, Michael Rispoli plays Depp’s sidekick and fellow intern at the press, Sala. And opposite of him, Aaron Eckhart plays the bad side of Harvey Dent as an evil business tycoon named Sanderson who’s bent on destroying some local scenery in lieu of a fancy hotel.

The film begins in a drunken stupor, with Kemp waking up from a hard night of drinking to begin his first day at the press. Kemp quickly finds that those working beside him are a mangy band of misfits much like himself. He also finds that the press he just started working for is quickly going up in smoke, and must decide whether to stay with the sinking ship or flee back to New York—a decision that slightly resembles the internal battle a theatre-goer must face when watching this film: the choice of whether to stay aboard this rapidly sinking ship or flee back to whatever degenerate, suburban slum they crawled out from.

Along the way, Kemp gets involved with a business mogul named Sanderson who’s illegally trying to develop one of the islands nearby. Kemp is caught up in the mix of Sanderson’s operation when he’s employed to write some pieces about his hotel operation that will hopefully swindle the Puerto Rican people into supporting it. There’s also a love story haphazardly thrown in involving Sanderson’s fiancé that incites a twisted yet uninteresting love triangle between the three.

In fact, the entire storyline is nothing but a muddled mess with a superabundance of separate plotlines that struggle for the center stage. The plot fights with itself continuously over which story is going to be the lead but never entirely resolves it. Characters are introduced, and then thrown out halfway through; sub-plots are started but never finished; the impromptu love story is embarrassingly clichéd and somewhere along the line we’re introduced to some Thompson-esque anti-establishment psychobabble. Rum Diary goes every which way without ever staying in one direction for any satiating amount of time. It jumps from serious drama to light-hearted drug memoir to romantic comedy to perplexing social commentary on the evils of industrialization.

As a fan of the book, I wanted to like this movie—I really did—but I just can’t say, with any shred of a doubt, that it’s a movie worthy of Thompson’s or Depp’s name. It had such potential to become another Fear and Loathing but ultimately came out as a major letdown. The main problem with Rum Diary is that it’s missing everything that made the book so great. And for a film nearly ten years in the making, it feels shockingly unpolished.

In fact, the only thing I truly enjoyed about this movie was the setting. Puerto Rico is a beautiful filming location of urban decay set to the backdrop of exotic jungelry. But the beauteous scenery cannot save this movie, nor does Depp’s convincing performance as a young Thompson. Depp, who plays Thompson second only to Thompson himself, seems to be the only redeeming performance in this movie.

Being in the middle of the Caribbean, things apparently got hot on the set of Rum Diary. With temperatures rising to above 100 degrees, everybody was on edge, and the ice in the beer cooler was probably melting faster than they could drink. Maybe that’s why this movie is so bad—or maybe its Bruce Robinson’s terrible direction, I’m still undecided.

In the ending dialogue, Kemp asks “Do you smell that? That’s the smell of bastards.”—but the only thing I was smelling as it came to an end was the incredible rotting stink of this film.

Hunter S. Thompson fans will probably come away disappointed with Rum Diary. In fact, it’s a movie that probably shouldn’t have even been made in the first place—Hunter S. Thompson movies should have ended when Hunter S. Thompson ended Hunter S. Thompson.

So my final verdict: stay away from this movie, it will only lead to much disappointment and frustration as you witness a great novel be torn to shreds by a poor Hollywood adaptation. At the heart of every Hunter S. Thompson novel is a highball glass full of rum, but the movie version of Rum Diary seems to be a stale blend.


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