November 1998

A rediscovered classic

By Hunter S. Thompson
Review by
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Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, revered by many as the voice of his generation, is on a roll. A book of his letters (The Proud Highway) was published last year to critical acclaim; a movie based on one of his earlier works, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, hit theaters nationwide this past summer; and now an early novel has been resurrected, the first (and to date, only) work of fiction from the iconoclastic icon.

Set in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the late fifties and early sixties, The Rum Diary is vintage Thompson. The protagonist, one Paul Kemp, bears a marked resemblance to the Hunter Thompson we know and love: the hard-drinking, outspoken (some might say loudmouthed), and bitingly funny itinerant journalist.

Kemp's problems begin upon boarding the plane to Puerto Rico. He sees a lovely young girl with whom he would like to share the flight, but an elderly man takes the vacant adjacent seat instead. First verbally, then physically, Kemp tries to dissuade the intruder from taking his seat. In the process, a ruckus ensues, and Kemp very nearly finds himself thrown off the plane. (As you might imagine, the girl will show up again in the very near future.) Quickly Kemp finds himself in the midst of chaos, Caribbean style: the paper he has gone to work for is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, besieged by labor and circulation problems; the weather is unceasingly hot and sticky; and the girl from the plane is trotting around half-dressed on the arm of Kemp's sole friend on the island.

It quickly goes from bad to worse. Kemp and a couple of his drinking buddies get thrown into jail, then bailed out by what may well be a bad check; the girl gets kidnapped by a seductive stranger at Carnival, the tropical equivalent of Mardi Gras; Kemp and the rest of the newspaper staff get stiffed on their paychecks, prompting them to lay waste to the head office; the list goes on.

Hunter S. Thompson is not always likable, sometimes bordering on mean-spirited, but there's no denying that the man is funny. He spins a tale of the tropics as deftly as Alec Waugh, or for that matter, Jimmy Buffett. That this story was originally penned in the '60s (then hidden away in a basement for the intervening years) speaks volumes about the abundant talents of Hunter S. Thompson.

Bruce Tierney is a writer based in Nashville, Tennessee.

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The Rum Diary: The Long Lost Novel

The Rum Diary: The Long Lost Novel

By Hunter S. Thompson
Simon & Schuster
ISBN 9780684855219

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