The Rum Diary is often referred to as Hunter S. Thompson’s lost novel. (It was only published in 1998.) Before Thompson rose to fame through his bestselling novels (e.g. Hells Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), he struggled for years to get this novel published. Despite his attempts to edit and re-write it, his efforts were in vain.
In fact it wasn’t until Johnny Depp discovered the manuscript in the basement of Owl Farm, Thompson’s residence in Aspen Colorado. The well-known actor lived with the author while researching him for his role as Raoul Duke, in Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
The Rum Diary is based in the late 1950s, a time when Cold War hysteria is common and the mere mention of Communism makes patriotic Americans sick to their stomachs. As America attempts to keep Communism away from its shores it invests in its Caribbean (and Latin American) neighbours, thereby promoting diplomatic and economic ties between their respective countries. This is important to note because throughout the story we are reminded of the (economic) ‘boom’ which is transforming San Juan into an American paradise.
When the opportunity to work at an English newspaper in San Juan arises, Paul Kemp decides to meet this challenge head on. As an experienced journalist he journeys to Puerto Rico in search for change and a place to start anew.
It sounds simple enough.
After all, it’s one thing to leave everything you know behind and head into the unknown, but what happens when the your confidence begins to fade?
As our protagonist settles into his job at the Daily News, he is introduced to a cast of strange characters including a photographer named Bob (Robert) Sala and (fellow journalist) Yeamon. Though their relationship begins as purely professional it eventually transitions into a friendship. Despite the inclination to begin drinking during work hours, the trio work hard at their respective jobs. However, when the journalists need to blow off some steam, or escape from the chaos at work, they head to Al’s Backyard.
Located at the top of Calle O’ Leary hill, Al’s is where most of the Daily News’ staff hang out and drink. While many come after work, there are just as many who frequent it during the day. And though it serves only hamburgers, the beer is 25 cents a bottle. From the beginning of the novel until the very end, Al’s is where Kemp and his friends head to drown their sorrows. Day or night.
At first Kemp is optimistic to work in San Juan. It’s a fresh start. And for an experienced journalist it’s a good opportunity to learn more of the world while getting paid. However, his optimism begins to fade when he learns some of the realities of life on the island. Despite the ‘boom’ that Puerto Rico is experiencing, there are few locals who are able to profit from it. There are many who live in dismal conditions while others toil daily selling sliced pineapples, or waiting on rich (white) tourists.
In time Kemp is introduced to some of the elite, including a wealthy American named Sanderson. Sanderson seems to know all the influential people on the island, including the editor and owner of the Daily News. In spite of his connections, Kemp is enraged upon discovering that the majority to these individuals are nothing more than opportunists and phonies. Among these individuals are the greedy entrepreneurs who have traveled to San Juan with the intent to purchase the surrounding land and develop it (e.g. building hotels), thereby ruining this tropical paradise in order to increase their own personal fortunes. Meanwhile, the average Puerto Rican continues to work his or her menial job, it is clear that the Yankees are the ones benefiting from the ‘boom’.
This presents a moral dilemma for our protagonist. If Sanderson knows everyone of importance then presumably he could open some doors for his acquaintance (Kemp). Furthermore, there are certain opportunities that would not be available to Kemp if he did not associate with Sanderson.
As the days turn into weeks and the weeks turn into months, the heat and work related stress begins to wear down the veteran journalist and his friends. Once, drinking was a way to socialize and unwind. However, the drinking soon becomes an escape. And as the drinking becomes more serious, so does their misadventures.
For every action there is a reaction, and dire consequences await Kemp, Sala and Yeamon.
It gets ugly when a typical drinking bout leads to a brawl with the locals. And when the police arrive- who are they likely to blame? The local Puerto Ricans, or three drunken Americans?
The Rum Diary is a phenomenal read. In my opinion, it is often overlooked by those who enjoy Thompson’s work. The novel is dark and sometimes it’s even depressing but that’s ok, because sometimes life is like that.
The novel focuses on a man who is no longer in his prime. As some of life’s ugly realities become more evident, Paul Kemp must re-evaluate his place in the world. Even more frightening, he must re-consider some of the truths he once took for granted.
It’s something that many of us can identify with. As we deal with the uncertainties of our lives we fight to remain positive and focus on what we believe is important.
Whether relaxing on a Caribbean beach with a glass of rum, or sitting in the comfort of your own home- The Rum Diary is available at your local library.
– D.P. Bohémier