The Rum Diary is Hunter S Thompson’s long lost novel written when he was 22. The cover shows a young and handsome Hunter before drugs when he was working as a journalist in Puerto Rico. The story follows Paul Kemp, a thirty something journalist, who drifts into the San Juan newspaper scene where mediocre English journalists, drifters, mix with the legitimately good who find themselves on the island for one reason or another. Yeamon is a young turk, “looking to rip the world apart, and do it all over again”. Chenault is Yeamon and Kemp’s love interest who is beautiful, naive, and wanton.
Paul Kemp is on the verge of a mid-life crisis of sorts as he realizes that he doesn’t have the same energy , drive, or potential he once had. A man who realizes that he is hopelessly lost after spending the burning fire of his youth convinced of success only to realize that his potential shall remain an unfulfilled dream. The matter is only made worse by Yeamon, the young turk he once was, a wild man taking on Puerto Rican gangs with total disregard of his safety, making vague personal threats to his boss when they don’t see eye to eye and naturally attracting fine women like Chenault who he treats like trash.
Paul wants to distance himself yet is drawn into the world of Yeamon as he creates one mess after another that it finally comes to a head, when all the ties break loose and Kemp is forced to clean up.
The book is classic Thompson without drugs. It’s interesting that he’s writing the novel as a thirty-something “washed up journalist”, observing a younger version of himself embodied by Yeamon. In essence, they are both Thompson. His obsession with age and ambition clearly dominates the book and something that stayed with him until he committed suicide at the age of 67. Overall, the book has its moments but is loosely held together, it’s a style that carried over well into his gonzo journalism style of prose.
We spent the next six hours in a tiny concrete cell with about twenty Puerto Ricans. We couldn’t sit down because they had pissed all over the floor, so we stood in the middle of the room, giving out cigarettes like representatives of the Red Cross. They were a dangerous-looking lot. Some were drunk and others seemed crazy. I felt safe as long as we could supply them with cigarettes, but I wondered what would happen when we ran out.
The novel does a magnificent job of capturing the mild contempt the Puerto Ricans have with the Americans and vice versa. Americans are vaguely self-aware of their expatriate blessings while the locals begrudgingly acknowledge America’s superiority in terms of financial power. It’s a potent brew that comes to head at times throughout the novel.