This is my review of The Rum Diary (Bloomsbury Classic Reads) by Hunter S. Thompson.
Written when the author was little more than twenty and based on personal experience, this is the tale of Paul Kemp, cynical, hard-drinking journalist who takes up a post on the San Juan Daily News, a rag produced on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico.
At first I was reluctant to read this book group choice, imagining it would be a prolonged drunken rant. Although said to be an example of "gonzo" journalism – "bizarre, crazy, exaggerated, subjective and fictionalized style" to use a dictionary definition, from the outset I was struck by Hunter Thompson's remarkably spare and lucid, razor-sharp style ( for one who is rarely sober) and the sense of anticipation that something interesting is going to happen. In fact, the book is short enough for one not to feel let down by the slightness of the plot which is not really the point.
As you might hope for a reporter, Thompson is very strong on creating a sense of place : "old Spanish Puerto Rico..where one part of the city looked like Tampa (Florida) and the other ….like part of a medieval asylum". The whole paragraph is much better than this but too long to quote. Or there is the description of his drive to a friend's house during which he encounters for the first time the native Puerto Rico: "I was not prepared for the sand road.. I went the whole way in low gear, running over land crabs, creeping… through deep stagnant puddles, bumping and jolting in ruts and chuckholes…"
This is a backwater that attracts conmen, petty crooks, failures and drifters, like Kemp – all at times subjected to his remarkably perceptive analysis for such a young man. The author describes very effectively the kind of disillusion with small town America that drives a man to travel the world, uncertain what he is seeking, often making astute observations, but always a rootless outsider.
At times I grew tired of the drunkenness, which led to some unsavoury if realistic incidents: the looting of a liquor store during a carnival, which reminded me of the UK city riots of 2011, or a man casually beating up his girlfriend. I could not work out whether the chauvinism displayed to some extent by Kemp and even more so by his wild colleague Yeamon was an unconscious product of the 1950s or meant to be a parody of male insensitivity.
I could not say that I liked this book, but the quality of the writing impressed me. I could have wished he had applied this talent to a less drink-sodden world. He would probably have said that the rum helped him to write. Yet he was all too aware of the "quiet deadly ticking of a thousand hungry clocks, the lonely sound of time passing" and perhaps being wasted, but he lacked the will power to avoid this.