The Rum Diary
Hunter S. Thompson
Paul Kemp, the narrator of this Lost Weekend–knock-off of a novel probably wouldn’t ask that question. But his not so distant descendants–the narrators of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Curse of Lono–might.
The trouble is, those narrators are all more or less the same. Despite the ardor of one Johnny Depp and the aura that came with inventing Gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thompson, it turns out, has but one character in him.
And that character is inside my head clearly–well, as clearly as you can with a cigarette holder clenched between your teeth–asking the question I raised at the outset. Thompson had an ultra-distinct way of speaking, a unique rhythm with the words almost held back by the teeth clenching that talismanic filering device. Depp actually does an admirable job of capturing it in the Fear and Loathing film.
Thompson earned his fame in the heat of the 1960s counterculture although if you ask me he always a stood a bit to the right of that whole experiment. Born in Kentucky, Thompson served in the USAF before embarking on a career in journalism. That career took him through a number of postings including Puerto Rico, the setting of the present tale. His reputation exploded with the 1967 publication of Hell’s Angels, a story he reported by living with the gang for a year or more. Coupled with his starting to write for the then-in-its-infancy Rolling Stone, Thompson became the de facto emissary of the new journalism to the counterculture generation. (Or maybe it was the other way around, not that it matters.)
What followed were his two masterworks, the first of which forever preserved his persona in popular culture amber. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas first appeared in Rolling Stone in late 1971 and was published as a pocket paperback early in 1972. He spent most of the rest of that year on the campaign trail writing the columns that became Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. Together, they’re a body of work of which any writer could be proud.
I stumbled across Fear and Loathing sometime in 1979 while working at the local public library. Whether it suddenly appeared on the shelf (the acquisitions librarian had an anarchic streak; around the same time the first Ramones album arrived without fanfare) or on my cart to be shelved, I grabbed it and tore through its scant two hundred or so pages.
It remains the single funniest, and seemingly most accurate, recounting of a drug-fueled adventure ever written. In those long ago days one could still encounter lost souls from 5 to 10 years before who would babble on at length abut some life-changing trip in a way that made no sense. Thompson was different. He made perfect sense, skewering everything mainstream he encountered in his addled state. Anger, perspicacity, humour. Who could ask for anything more? That he could do the same thing for politics in a hopefully less-compromised state was the cherry on the sundae.
That was HST’s peak. Other books followed. The aforementioned Lono. Collections of columns. Greatest hits. He seemed, to me, to become increasingly bitter and ever more a cartoon, living well-armed in Aspen, Colorado in a compound apart from the rest of the populace.
Among the detritus put forth in the years between ’79 and his suicide/death was the present volume, probbaly written in the early 1960s but published in 1998. It’s a tale of a man, no longer really young, who takes himself to a Caribbean island. Along the way he drinks far too much and winds up as a point in what might be called a love triangle if it wasn’t really a sex triangle.
No doubt about it, Paul Kemp is Raoul Duke, the protagonist of Fear and Loathing, and both are probably stand-ins for Hunter himself. If the new journalists used novelistic techniques in their reportage, Thompson’s Gonzo brand of writing put him squarely in the center of the action, however that might be conceived.
So why do I say he has but one character? Consider two passages. Here’s the first, from The Rum Diary:
“Scattered among the sailors were men in dinner jackets and silk suits. Most of them smoked cigars and when they talked it was in the accent of Ne’ Yak….The light in gambling rooms is not good for aging women. It catches every crease in their faces and wart on their necks; drops of sweat between fallow breasts, hairs on a nipple momentarily exposed, a flabby arm or a sagging eye.”
And Fear and Loathing:
“She was a big woman. Not fat, but large in every way, long sinewy arms and a brawler’s jawbone. A burned-out caricature of Jane Russell: big head of dark hair, face slashed with lipstick and a 48 Double-E chest that was probably spectacular about twenty years ago when she might have been a Mama for the Hell’s Angels chapter in Berdoo.”
Yes, writers have distinct voices and maybe even obsessions. Yet I couldn’t help thinking as I read TRD that I’d read this before. It was, in some ways, a warm-up exercise for the big show; action fueled by booze rather than narcotics, psychedelics and medical chemicals. Given the apparent date of conception, and the parallels in the tales, you can hardly blame me for thinking otherwise.
In fact, the major thing missing was the humour. At his best, Hunter S. Thompson captured the utter insanity of America and laughed out loud at it. Without the hunour, all you’ve got is booze, sex and drugs and that’s not enough to sustain a book, much less a life.