I know Hunter S. Thompson is a pretty big deal for a lot of people, but not me. I don’t mean that to be disparaging to the author by any means, I have just never read any of his works or seen the film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas which a lot of folks adore. Of course, I’ve always been curious, even after a giant of a man in a stained purple T-shirt told me he was Thompson’s nephew one evening at a gas station in Delaware, Ohio (where I went to college). That’s a story for another time. Anyway, when I walked by the old free table at Wizard a few years back and saw Thompson’s The Rum Diary, a book I had never heard of, I was intrigued, but not enough to dive right in. Even though I generally gave up on my Ambitious Reading List, I did go back to this one recently because I was interested.
The irony of me finding a book about a man moving for a job in publishing only to find himself wondering if he did the right thing, drinking a lot and watching his workplace crumble around him, is not lost on me. To get into a little more detail, our main character Paul Kemp leaves New York to work in San Juan Puerto Rico in the late 50s. He’s a newspaperman and finds himself surrounded by fellow newspapermen who either don’t care, care too much or drink too much as he explores his new home. Paul becomes friendly with some folks like photographer and short time roommate Sala who is good at what he does, but seems to hate everything and Yeamon a man with a short temper and a girlfriend named Chenault.
Here’s the thing about The Rum Diary, it seems to be less about an arc in a character and more about a period of time for a character. Sure, he goes through some things and thinks about some things–specifically whether he’s already washed up at a pretty young age and if he wants to continue on working and drinking his way throughout the world–but the story ends because his job does and it’s time for him to move on. There’s also some potential problems with the law that forced him out, but that’s another matter. It actually took me a while to get invested in the book and even when I did, it was because I could relate to the ideas even if I didn’t really like the characters I was reading about.
Don’t get me wrong, though, I enjoyed this book a lot. But, I think it’s more because I can relate to a lot of the sentiments expressed therein. I imagine anyone whose ever wondered about their place at their job or their station in life can relate, but, seriously, if you’ve ever worked for a magazine, website or newspaper that crumbled before your eyes or flat out shut down, then you absolutely need to read this book.
If you’re interested, the history behind The Rum Diary is actually kind of interesting. See Thompson went down to San Juan himself and started writing this book after talking to a bunch of journalists in the area. That was in 1959. No one wanted to print the book. Fast forward about ten years and Hunter started to make a name for himself. The book didn’t actually get published until 1998, though. Pretty interesting stuff.