“The scene I had just witnessed brought back a lot of memories – not of things I have done but of things I have failed to do, wasted hours and frustrated moments and opportunities forever lost because time had eaten so much of my life and I would never get it back.”
Paul Kemp; an arrogant, know-it-all journalist makes his way from New York to Puerto Rico to work at the only English-language paper on the island, ‘The Daily News’. The people there however, are like the weather; hot-tempered and volatile, often drifting from one assignment to another with little loyalty to their profession. As the paper sits perpetually on the brink of bankruptcy, Kemp begins to question the reason he came to the island in the first place. His workmates (an unwilling, down-and-out, lazy bunch of vagrants) seem to be a mirror, showing him how he’ll end up one day if he lets his profession (and the island) burn him out.
Based loosely on Thompson’s brief stint as a journalist in Puerto Rico, the ‘Rum Diary’ is a mish-mash of office politics, masculine desperation and that all important question, ‘just what am I doing with my life?’ Kemp, a thirtysomething reporter has so far got by rather well on his youth and his looks; but upon arriving at this tropical paradise, falls short of his expectations. He suddenly feels like an unwanted immigrant. The hostility of the locals and the idle tension among his colleagues mounts to breaking point. He soon realises that he must make a decision; to stay and live in the languorous haze of uncertainty, or leave.
Before I begin to list the good, the bad and the ugly, I want to make it clear that this was one of Thompson’s first novels. The second, ‘Prince Jelly-Fish’ was written about the same time as ‘The Rum Diary’ but was never published. Thompson is also famous for his self-styled ‘Gonzo‘ journalism; a rather theatrical, egocentric form of reporting. For anyone hoping to find any of that here they can think twice, because this is not Gonzo. No where near, in fact. Here is a rare example of Hunter’s writing before the rock ‘n’ roll drugs took hold. People wishing to catch a glimpse of Thompson’s writing pre-Gonzo will find this a very valuable text indeed, because here is a young man with a clear vision and a bold pen who even at this age, believed in ‘buying the ticket and taking the ride’.
Although ‘The Rum Diary’ is a candid account on many levels, the problem I had with it was variety. Everything seemed disjointed, there seemed to be no definite direction which I admit, on one hand, enhances the inertia Thompson wished to create. The eye of Paul Kemp is a little too depressing. He finds nothing beautiful, most of the time I felt like I was looking through newspaper print; everything black and white, sleazy and never good enough. Puerto Rico came across as an island that falls short of its exotic equatorial glamour. The narrative is so firmly trained on the American characters and the failings of both them and their newspaper that the writing feels a little too ‘inbred’. There is only so much one can take about the jealous Yeamon and Chenault, his dumb, blonde girlfriend. Having said this, the characters are well-developed, yet they lacked greatly in other ways. There was no warmth to them.
The political situation of Puerto Rico might also have inspired Thompson to people his narrative with a lot of self-serving, arrogant ‘get rich quick’ types that often descend on such islands. These profit-seeking, hotel magnates crop up in ‘The Rum Diary’, where the attractive coastline are nothing but a profit margin to the capitalist mind.
“At that time the U.S. State Department was calling Puerto Rico ‘America’s advertisement in the Caribbean – living proof that capitalism can work in Latin America.’ The people who had come there to do the proving saw themselves as heroes and missionaries, bringing the holy message of Free Enterprise to the downtrodden jibaros. They hated commies like they hated sin, And the fact that an ex-Red was publishing a paper in their town didn’t make them happy.”
Having stressed that this is in no way ‘Gonzo’ material, I have to add that Thompson’s political opinions still show very strongly whch is a trait that he develops in his later work.
I was also quite surprised by the way Thompson wished to portray the islanders. He doesn’t paint a very kind portrait of them, and regards life on the island as an unbearable negative. The Puerto Ricans come across as people who like nothing better than to fight at the slightest provocation. They are stereotyped into drunk, lazy islanders who like their siestas and cannot be trusted. Like the island, the natives are a mere blur in the background and surface only as a negative superior to the other negatives in the novel.
Yet there were moments of atmospheric beauty, where Puerto Rico is allowed to come to life and shows its true colours.
“Voices rose and fell in the house next door and the raucous sound of a jukebox came from a bar down he street. Sounds of a San Juan night, drifting across the city through layers of humid air; sounds of life and movement, people giving up, the sound of hope and the sound of hanging on, and behind them all, the quiet, deadly ticking of a thousand hungry clocks, the lonely sound of time passing in the long Caribbean night.”
This is the final paragraph of the book as Kemp is about to leave. This passage was most unfair, as it left me yearning to read more about these San Juan nights. The nostalgia is palpable, as Kemp realises how deeply the island has affected him. Throughout the novel his relationship with Puerto Rico was of a love/hate kind, with hate almost winning over. In fact, the last passage reads almost as if it was written by someone else, a different voice with a totally different set of feelings.
It made me think of two novels, the one Thompson wrote, riddled with office politics and inane characters and a different ‘Rum Diary’, stripped from its journalist perspective that’s perhaps a little fairer and truer to the time he spent in Puerto Rico. But then again, Thompson was not the kind for inspired travelogs. For that, I must go elsewhere.
- The Rum Diary (politfilm.wordpress.com)