by Hunter S Thompson
213, pages, Bloomsbury
Seasons in the Sun by Pat Black
Here’s a strange one. I’m not given to killing my idols, but this is not quite the Hunter S Thompson I know and love.
The Rum Diary was the good doctor’s first novel, penned when he was in his early twenties and long before he exploded onto the scene with Hell’s Angels. The manuscript didn’t see the light of day, apart from the odd excerpt in collections of Thompson’s work, until 1998, coinciding with the movie version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It isn’t a bad book, at all – it’s worth your time, whether you’re a fan of Raoul Duke and his sybarite adventures or not. But I would say it is very much a first novel, and it could well have suffered the same fate as the freshman efforts of many a writer - locked in a trunk somewhere, gathering layers of dust and embarrassment - had its author not found fame and infamy in such spectacular ways.
The Rum Diary is narrated by Paul Kemp, a journalist who moves from New York City to the sweaty, blistering climes of Puerto Rico in the late 1950s. The man is 30 years old but he feels he is already on “that big lonely hump, with all my hardnose years behind me and all the rest downhill”. Although this book deals with a lot of drinking, ribaldry and high-octane living, Kemp is a somewhat gloomy narrator, filled with dread and doom, fearing the ravages of time most of all. It’s such a curious facet of Thompson’s work that he focused so much on being over the hill, especially given that he wrote this when he was so young. Relax, mate, I want to say to him – the thirties are pretty good! Sadly, this Shelley-esque fixation with growing old before his time followed him until the very end of his life, the dot on his final exclamation mark being a self-inflicted bullet wound.
Kemp begins work on the Daily News, a local rag clinging onto existence by the skin of its circulation. The organ is beset by labour problems from the first pages; continually facing wildcat strikes, with the immigrant journalists running the gauntlet of native Puerto Ricans on the picket lines as they arrive for work. The editor, Lotterman, seems like he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown – plus ca change; I’ve met a few news editors who were cut from the same badly baubled cloth. Meanwhile, the offices thrum rather convincingly with that unique newsroom atmosphere; save for the fact that someone has pissed on the wire machine in a drunken rage, and that we’re a long way off from the computer age, it felt authentic to this thirty-something hack, at any rate.
Arriving on this sweaty scene, Kemp befriends a loose collection of stringers, photographers and fellow journalists and joins them on their degenerate adventures. There’s Sala the photographer, “the only pro on the island”, the wild and unpredictable Yeamon and his girlfriend Chenault, and Sanderson the ad man who has his eyes fixed on dollar signs, a man Kemp sees as heading towards his first million by the time he’s 40.
It seems like quite a wild time for this motley crew of hacks, with plenty of money to go around, lots of willing women to take to the beach, and lots of rum to be drunk for a dollar a bottle – and another two for the ice. But feelings can grow in even the most unhealthy atmospheres. Kemp is altogether too fond of Chenault, a curious mix of siren and carefree nymph; the scene is set for a sultry novel of lust and betrayal... But it never quite happens.
The Rum Diary is very well written, and shows flashes of that blistering prose style that is so recognisably Hunter S. Thompson. Whatever the man’s real-life antics, only the greatest fool would think that he did not take his craft seriously, or that he did not know how to write interesting sentences. However, in this effort he commits one of the most dreadful sins possible for any aspiring novelist. This is a story in which not very much of note happens. There’s the opening set-piece on a plane, where Kemp first spies Chenault, and he ends up beating an old man who holds him back from making her acquaintance. There’s a stomping that the Americans endure from the Puerto Ricans – with the police joining in all too eagerly – when one of the group decides not to pay a bar bill. There’s an assignment to an island paradise where a big US hotel chain is looking to set up. And there’s a nauseating, semi-pornographic rape scene at a house party in which the pages grow rather grubby. Apart from that, things pretty much come and go. Kemp floats around, he drinks a lot, he eats a lot of pineapple and hamburgers, he grows cynical and restless, he lusts after Chenault in the way a teenager might develop a crush on a schoolteacher, and in the end he has little in the way of lessons learned. I was never bored, of course – I don’t think Thompson wrote anything dull in his life, including grocery lists – but I was barely stirred or moved.
It is a political book. Kemp is an outsider along with the other Americans on the island, and there is an antagonistic relationship between them and the Puerto Ricans. Thompson paints the Puerto Ricans as “the other”, but he seems to be siding with them ideologically, despite the punishment the “Yankees” are handed out by the natives. It can’t be an accident that one of the major entrepreneurs Kemp encounters is a retired US military commander, who can’t quite give up his uniform for the “slack, ill-fitting” suits worn by the civvies. The fact that a major part of one island is used as a firing range by the US marines doesn’t go unnoticed, either. Still, for all that appears to have been taken away by the US, the Puerto Rican people are more than capable of taking some of it back when the mood takes them. This ugly, simmering tension underpins a lot of the book, and when it finally explodes, ending with a punch in the face, we feel the force of the blow as much as Kemp does.
God forgive me, but I can see why it took so long for The Rum Diary to get published. There are moments of Thompson’s trademark elegant rage, particularly one lovely scene where Kemp laments the fact that a tropical beach where he encounters a rare sense of peace and tranquillity is about to be turned into a playground for the rich. But apart from that, it lacks the fulminating drive and manic energy of his signature journalistic style. Instead you just follow the adventures of a dilettante reporter, a cliché even when Thompson put pen to paper, and someone who I’m not sure I liked very much.
Prince Jellyfish, Thompson’s great unpublished piece of fiction, will probably follow suit from The Rum Diary and appear on the bookshelves at some point in the future. Going by the excerpts I’ve read, it will most likely follow suit in terms of its style and impact, too. I sense that Thompson harboured great ambitions as a fiction writer. Famously, he typed out The Great Gatsby word-for-word in order to imbibe Fitzgerald’s prose style. It’s a great irony that Thompson was better known for, and better suited to, documenting and embellishing the stuff of true life rather than the somewhat gloomier constructions of his own febrile imagination. Sometimes, those early efforts are best left in the trunk.