The Rum Diary, By Hunter S. Thompson, Read by Christopher Lane, Blackstone Audio, Inc., 2006
Long lost novels, as we’ve read here before, are dicey propositions. At their best, if they are first novels, they show the writer in an unformed state before a style has settled tightly on them and we can watch them as if in an prenatal/authorial ultrasound. At their worst, they are embarrassments the author was wise enough to shelve but the greedy estate could not resist shoveling out upon an unsuspecting public. Truman Capote was lucky enough to fall into the first category; Ernest Hemingway has had the misfortune of belonging to the latter category.
Begun when he was twenty-two, Thompson’s first novel, The Rum Diary, now found after lo these many years, demonstrates in its very first pages that the man had talent from the get-go. A talent for madness, to be sure, but the kind of observational gifts and knack for the way words conjure more than mere images. There is a palpable taste to the novel that foreshadows much of Thompson’s later writing and a sense of the sucking lure of chaos, its fearfulness and its liberation.
Paul Kemp is the reporter who turns up in San Juan, Puerto Rico to work for a struggling newspaper. The book moves through one fast-paced incident after another, Thompson’s journalist prowess of putting the story in its sharpest relief with minimal effort shining through each scene. Getting the hots for a young woman on the plane, Kemp nearly beats up an elderly man trying to save her seat and is himself nearly beaten by those around him. The woman turns out to be Chenault, a lust filled ex-secretary with wildness under her skin, and the girlfriend of perhaps the most dangerous man on the island, ‘Fritz’ Yeamon which barely deters Kemp, as cocksure as Thompson’s infamous Raoul.
The book reads like one long bender. It’s a thirsty book where rum flows as copiously as water if not more so and delirium tremens, paranoiac fugues, assault and battery, apoplexy, and other shameful hijinks ensue on every page. There is little plot to speak of save a writer in his thirties shows up in Puerto Rico and immerses himself among the drunken sots and mental cripples of a low-budget rag of a newspaper in the capital city San Juan. Kemp and companions stumble from one episode to another and we are treated to the ins and outs of a dying paper.
The newspaper staff is comprised of the insane such as Moberg who pisses on everything, hates the taste of rum but can drink a bottle of it in ten minutes, and once asked a cop in a drunk tank if he could eat a piece of the leg of a bum they were beating. Lauderman, the editor, an old Communist who attacks anything on the left, hates his staff, and screams constantly. Sala, the photographer who threatens to quit daily and is paranoid. To view the assembled staff is as if to peek inside Thompson’s own fevered psyche, the fragments he shored up against his ruins.
Despite Thompson’s apparent hardboiled exterior (in interviews, in public speaking engagements, in his own writing) there is a shyness and a terror of others and a sensitivity masked under all that bravado. It is perhaps here on more naked display than in many a later book where the Gonzo elements of his style have taken over. The following passage reads kind of cynical and macho the first time around, but slow down and read between the words and your hear the wounded plaint that was always Thompson’s bass note.
‘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’m 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.
What’s interesting about the novel is the sheer romanticism of it, the young man’s appreciation of beauty even in squalor, the Thompson before his idealist soul was battered and scarred over with the mask of madness and dissipation. When Kemp struggles through the crowds of Carnivale, trying desperately to find Chenault, he struggles gamely to touch the spirit of Hemingway, and that ghostly presence of Papa pervades the novel. You can feel Thompson’s reach exceeding his grasp. It is to our own enjoyment and pleasure that Thompson too felt this gap and instead mined that instead.
Reader Christopher Lane has a deep resonant voice which came as a surprise upon seeing his photo. He reads straightforwardly without trying to provide especial vocal inflection and that is just fine for this book, the majority of the characters ex-patriot Americans at any rate.