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Book review: <i>The Rum Diary</i> by Hunter S. Thompson

The Rum Diary is a sweaty lusty booze-filled Caribbean odyssey.

Well on his way to defining his self-proclaimed Gonzo genre, even as early as 1959, a youthful Hunter S. Thompson delves into the proto capitalist society of San Juan, Puerto Rico, early in its systemic colonisation by the United States of America. Thompson’s protagonist “Paul Kemp” is a not-so-youthful thirty-something journalist, hounded by the ubiquitous passage of time and a nagging feeling of misspent youth. Kemp arrives in the Caribbean where beautiful girls are sleeping with anyone but him and his brilliant new career as a journalist is mired in the offices of a clapped out newspaper that threatens to fold and shutdown at every turn.

Though Thompson mostly apes his heroes Hemmingway and Fitzgerald throughout the narrative of The Rum Diary the book itself is highly entertaining thanks to Thompson’s eccentric and exciting characterisation and his trademark (though underdeveloped) style of narration. The plot concerns the protagonist’s journey to Puerto Rico and his subsequent dealings with the vibrant cast of characters constructed within the the sleazy and seductive rum-soaked Caribbean. It is not all youthful abandon and adventure though. Throughout, Thompson darkly rambles on in notes of futility and disappointment, and at his fever pitch in outright anger, at an unfulfilled promise of grand destinies.

At worst this debut is occasionally bogged down in expository segments where Thompson goes to great lengths to create the “Boy’s Own Adventure” style of setting and narrative favoured by many of his literary idols. At best the Rum Diary is an exotic and highly engaging tale that blooms into acknowledgements of natural beauty in the setting in characters like Chenault, a wild young woman from Connecticut. The Rum Diary is constructed extremely well and sees Thompson excel in his innate and madcap ability to capture insanity and adventure in its moment of existence. His telling of Paul Kemp’s story takes us all over the Caribbean through beach bars and grass hut dance-floors, slimy newspaper headquarters and crystal blue Caribbean oceans, street festivals and picturesque mansions. All the while Thompson’s protagonist remains loveable, if ragged and depressed, and undergoes a sophisticated evolution.

Thompson’s story telling acumen is formidable even at such an early stage in his career and in The Rum Diary he manages to create a beautiful world filled with beautiful characters that are as interesting and compelling as each other.

In short

Title: The Rum Diary
Author: Hunter S. Thompson
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 0684856476
Year published: 1999
Pages: 224
Genre(s): Travel literature, Contemporary literature
Review Type: