The Rum Diary: A Book Review
With the film adaptation having come out this year starring Johnny Depp as yet another alter ego of journalist Hunter S. Thompson, I thought it appropriate to give a review of this one of the few semi-autobiographies written by a young Thompson to be published.
Written at twenty-two in the late 50s and published in his fifties, Thompson's Rum Diary is set in Puerto Rico involving a character named Paul Kemp, a journalist who gets a job at a small English-written newspaper in San Juan. A roommate of mine had expressed interest in reading this novel after I had read it, but after seeing it sit untouched in his bedroom for almost a month, he handed it back to me when I figured he wouldn't be reading it, saying with disappointment, “There are no drugs.” Yes, this novel was written by a much more clear-headed, flat-voiced Thompson, before his days at Rolling Stone as the mescaline-, peyote- and acid-fueled Fear and Loathing eccentric. The novel takes place before Thompson's attempt at running for Sheriff of Aspen and spending a year with the Hell's Angels. Before his fame and exploits into the Gonzo world he was so embedded in. But this was the beginning of that Gonzo voice, with Paul Kemp being a dead ringer for Thompson and taking actual accounts and putting him at the center of what happened.
Throughout the novel, the narrative follows Kemp and two of his coworkers, Yeamon and Sala, at the Daily News, as they run into a few mishaps here and there, including a bike being dismantled by Puerto Ricans and Kemp's friends winding up in jail. The novel mostly follows Kemp going from story to story in San Juan, mingling with women on occasion, and exploring the early days of hedonism while trying to maintain his job at the crumbling paper. The novel isn't the most lively of Thompson's, but it illustrates the kind of lifestyle Kemp leads, with a kind of moral sensibility but a passive view through most of what happens.
The Rum Diary is in many ways a glimpse--as good as we can get--to a young Hunter Thompson, and his days living in San Juan, starting out as a journalist. The story is something of a fictional account, sure, but he really did base Yeamon and Sala off of his two real-life friends of the time, and he really did work at a paper there. I'm not sure how much of the novel's events can be considered true, but the novel never quite reaches the caliber of craziness that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas displayed. The novel feels much more realistic and sober, albeit drunkenly mellow.
The adaptation starring Johnny Depp as Kemp is, in my opinion, not a perfect one by any means. Character changes have been made, and the film focuses much more on the flirtation between Kemp and Chenault rather than Kemp's experiences at the paper. Depp is obviously not even close to being in his early to mid thirties (even if he looks youthful). That said, I deeply enjoyed Depp in Vegas as Raoul Duke, so it was kind of interesting to see him play a more sobered, down-tempo Thompson, even if there wasn't a whole lot for him to do other than speak and walk around, serving as more of a catalyst for other more eccentric characters. If the direction was handled a bit better, it could have been a much more enjoyable ride with the Good Doctor. That said, it wasn't as bad as Depp's last Pirates film. And considering how much of a personal friend Depp was to Thompson, he gave him the honor of going to extra lengths with his star power to make sure production handled Thompson's work with the respect it deserves, even if it didn't quite go the distance with it I would have liked to have seen. Overall, a pretty dull, unimportant and unfortunately forgettable film. It could easily have been redeemed to some degree, I believe, if it had simply included the great scene in the airplane arriving in Puerto Rico which appeared at the book's beginning.
The Rum Diary may not be a novel some fans of the drug-addled Thompson would enjoy as much as Fear and Loathing, but if anyone has a lust for journalistic exploits and frankly just an enjoyable story about the ugly, sketchy side of life in Puerto Rico, and if anyone is an avid Thompson fan at all, then this novel is highly recommendable. The subject matter may not be as risque or exploratory as Thompson's later stuff, but it is a fun little invite to the life of a young, budding journalist initiating his hedonistic lifestyle.