Book Review: The Rum Diary

There are those books that you read, and that have an impact on you; either you empathize with the protagonist, or the events haunt you for long after you read them, or you can feel an inexplicable connection with the author. Then there are those books that you read in the blazing hot sunshine in an impossibly beautiful foreign country, where it feels as though, in a strange twist of fate, you have somehow landed yourself within the narrative. Where the sights and sounds, walking along the beach at midnight, looking up at palms and a clear blue sky and walking dry, dusty roads all seem to have spilled right from the page into reality. Where, whilst sitting poolside in the incredible heat with a cold drink in hand, you read, and read, and cannot possibly put down the book because you are trying to figure out exactly when it actually started to happen. The Rum Diary was this book for me. After reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I was desperate for more Hunter S. Thompson, and finally extracted this gem from my hand luggage after boarding the plane. Within the first ten minutes, Paul Kemp was doing the same. Not … extracting The Rum Diary from his hand luggage. But he was boarding a plane, with, honestly, more hilarity than my own journey contained. (aside, perhaps, from the episode involving my mother and a lost-but-not-really-lost passport)

Undoubtedly, this has led to the book having a certain resonance for me that I have never been able to shake, not that I would want to. I can,  unashamedly, state that this is one of my favorite novels, even if Thompson himself initially had little faith in it, and some critics appear to agree. This is, perhaps, owing to its pre-Gonzo nature, and thus, is not as widely received as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – mention Hunter S. Thompson to almost anyone, and this work will be the most natural conclusion to all but those who absorb themselves in his work. The style, too, in decidedly one of a younger Thompson, but as Paul Kemp is essentially this, it is unsurprising. The unfortunate truth is that plenty of readers have put this down, and that I find this difficult to stomach, while not wanting to seem so intolerant of their opinions. There is the chance that this appeals more to me, that I enjoyed it more, because I am both a young reader and writer – approaching twenty myself (faster than it seems, I am sure), and reading something that was written by Thompson at twenty-two, is most likely going to have more of a draw for me than had I read it well into my thirties.

Ironically, this is something that underpins the entire novel. Paul Kemp’s own fear is that of going ‘over the hump’ as it were, a quality he sees clearly reflected in photographer Bob Sala. Similarly, his youth is reflected in hot-headed Yeamon, who seemingly ‘has life by the balls’ and whose girlfriend, Chenault has Kemp ‘stewing in his own lust’. It is this sense of weariness brought about in but a few short years, however, that dominates throughout; that Kemp is aware of the fact that many of the journalists around him have given up already, and that he acknowledges that he will most likely do the same gives the reader a sense of ambivalence, not towards the prose itself, but more towards the narrative.

Another overarching theme is that of ‘trouble in paradise’, that appears to permeate the entirety of the novel, right up until the point that Paul Kemp eventually leaves Puerto Rico.  Often, this is paralleled with vivid descriptions of natural beauty, conveyed in a more visceral manner, the most prevalent being the initial view of Vieques where he describes both a ‘wild desire to drive a stake in the sand and claim the place for myself’ and the need to ‘take of all my clothes and never wear them again’, both sensations elicited by the island’s natural beauty, white-as-salt sand and turquoise water. Here, he counters this with the ‘ugly chattering’ of Zimburger’s voice, which not only brings Kemp, but also the reader, back to earth, and reinforcing the idea that even the most gorgeous of landscapes can be ruined. This then takes on a more literal meaning when we learn that Zimburger has plans to redevelop the land and build a hotel on top of it. Chenault’s eventual fate, too, is at complete odds from the way in which her relationship with Yeamon is at first projected; their ‘idyllic’ moments standing waist-deep in the water and clinging to one another that cause Kemp to feel so old and frustrated, for example, as well as the way in which Kemp views her every time he encounters her. While she is supposed to come across as wild, both innocent and promiscuous simultaneously, the eventuality is that she almost seems to fade away, something perfect and beautiful that brings more heartache than joy.

I’ll take the time, here, then to say that Chenault was probably one of the characters that intrigued me most, not least because Thompson’s precision with the characters in this work is something that struck me right away. She is the exact kind of character that I have always found myself captured by; I recently read a review that argued against her being labeled a ‘whore’, and the injustice of this (unfortunately, they skirted over everything else in favor of focusing solely upon this) – I could go so far as to say that her personality shows some signs of histrionic tendencies, but I am no psychologist, and it would be presumptuous of me to say it. She’s daring, certainly. The aforementioned wildness of her character is displayed in multiple ways, from her behavior around Yeamon to her subtle and not so subtle promiscuity that seems to take root in a kind of exhibitionism rather than anything else. (sunbathing in the nude being the most vivid example) By the end, when we see her weakened, it is difficult to tell whether or not she is actually remorseful, or whether she is simply moving on through boredom, restlessness … she is described frequently as a child, or shows a plethora of childish tendencies, and so it seems only natural that she is constantly on the move, not in the same way as the many journalists are, but instead because everything suddenly seems new and exciting.

The supposed romance here is not played up to a point that it actually feels like romance. While often referred to as a ‘love triangle’ between Kemp, Yeamon and Chenault, the fact remains that there is little or no romance there at all. Initially, Kemp’s feelings towards Chenault come across as a kind of obsession – not unrequited love, but instead, the notion that he is drawn to her and wants more. The relationship between Yeamon and Chenault is somewhat reminiscent of most fleeting love affairs; undeniably sexual, and fueled by changeable personalities, restlessness, and a need for something akin to adventure. We know that they will not make it to the end of the novel together, an admission that Yeamon goes on to make in a less-than-pleasant manner, and while there is an element of wanting to root for Paul, too, there is a sense that nobody will get the girl. She’s virtually impossible to pin down; Yeamon’s temper shows quite often when dealing with her, yet she taunts him by suggesting the ‘natives’ watch her sunbathe in the nude. Kemp says nothing during these conversations in an awkward, evasive way. It is never so much a question of who deserves the girl as who is actually to blame for the events that later transpire.

As I have already stated, the voice is undoubtedly one of a younger Thompson, and yet even while reading there is some semblance of who he will grow to be, rather than who he already is; the madness I had grown used to after reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and to an extent, The Great Shark Hunt as well is strangely absent, and yet, this initially seemed to define the book for me. Once I grew accustomed to this, the experience became rather different to the ones I had had before. And, very much in spite of the fact that I was already in what I deemed paradise, it certainly inspired a need to move on further afield. In the end, this was purely limited to promising myself I would take a trip up to the pool minutes before I turned eighteen (this never happened), and having an overwhelming desire to break free of my planned route wherever we went (the actual ‘breaking free’ never happened either), but it is this that is far more prevalent. Naturally, there is the undercurrent of danger, of disappointment and of broken dreams or maddening lust. In the very same pages, there is a feeling of being in a place that is supposedly untouchable, something that is set up for a fall by pressing on with coverage of hotel development and political corruption.

In the same way, I have been attracted to characters who do things that are considered ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’, or sometimes ‘evil’. As such, what might have struck me as despicable instead hits with a kind of dull impact; I found it difficult to find any character completely abhorrent, even for all their faults. There is something morbidly intriguing about Moberg, for example, especially in a particular moment of insanity where he remarks ‘once down at the jail they beat a drunk until he almost died – I asked one of the cops if I could eat a chunk of his leg before they killed him …’ all the while laughing. Striking as this may seem, he follows it with a short comment about human flesh being no more sacred than any other meat, the twisted logic almost seeming to take away any of the shock built up by the facts he has already stated. Moberg is, perhaps, the most vibrantly illustrated of all the characters, if only in his supposed insanity, however, it is this, more than anything, that comes across; more than the locale, there is a care taken with the characters. In some ways, almost all of them are exaggerated when it comes to the finer points of their being, yet I could not bring myself to look upon this negatively, if only because it made San Juan, and in particular, the San Juan Daily News seem like a breeding ground for drunks and misfits from every walk of life – the exact thing Lotterman makes clear. And virtually the very first thing we learn about Lotterman is that he is an ex-communist.

There is a distinct draw, for me, to The Rum Diary, but now I feel it only prudent to bring up something that I originally intended to at the start of this review; in part, the release of the trailer for the film adaptation of this novel caused me to make a quick decision about what my next book review would be, (I was idling between Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Lunar Park) and I can only hope that I am taken back to where I was when I first read this. So far, however, multiple things have become clear, the most obvious being that very few people are willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt.

Personally, I cannot seem to make up my mind just yet. I have grown to become wary of adaptations, but I doubt that this is at all uncommon; oddly enough, most of the time, I seem to discover novels after the film adaptations have been made, (sometimes after watching, sometimes without truly knowing about it) and so, this is something of a rarity for me. There are things that I adore about this novel that the film will not capture; I doubt so much emphasis will be placed upon Chenault as a character, and instead it will come across as romance for all kinds of censorship and viewing related reasons. That said, at first glance, I have a feeling that I’ll be gripped with an urge to wear my sunglasses and swim shorts to the cinema … in spite of the fact that this the film is slated for a November release here.

The Final Summary:

Appealing to me for a variety of personal reasons, it is clear that this is an early work of Thompson’s, irrespective of publication date. This novel will demand that you read it, or want to read it, in a hot country, and later demand that you find the nearest beach and go swimming at midnight (something I wouldn’t recommend if you happen to live in the UK and it happens to be Autumn), and later make you realize that the most perfect of places, or the most perfect of moments cannot truly be perfect; this biting realism is what may cause this book to seem bleak at times and apathetic at others, but the pace is constant and like most of Thompson’s work, will have you in tumults of laughter or will leave you questioning why, how, and most importantly, what just happened. A great read for Thompson fans, even if some reviews concerning it have been disparaging.

A Few Links:

The Rum Diary on Goodreads
The Rum Diary (Film) on IMDb
Hunter S. Thompson on



Filed under Book Reviews

2 responses to “Book Review: The Rum Diary

  1. Wow. That is quite a detailed review. You’re a great reviewer!

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