A History of the Rum Diary

Page added: 1998
Last updated: Winter 2003

by Christine Othitis

That The Rum Diary is being called "The Long Lost Novel" is something of a misnomer. The book was never lost - it was simply unpublished.

As die-hard gonzo fans know, HST accepted a sportswriting job for a magazine called El Sportivo in late 1961. Lured by the promise that the magazine would be the "Sports Illustrated" of the Caribbean, HST left the states with his photographer friend Robert Bone. HST's future wife, Sandra Dawn Conklin, also eventually followed HST to Puerto Rico.

El Sportivo turned out to be nothing more than a bowling magazine where players wanted to see their name in print most of the time. HST less-than-fondly remembered the experience:

They were introducing bowling to Puerto Rico. I had to go out and cover bowling every night in San Juan. Bowling was going big. Bowling alleys were popping up everywhere. What could you say about bowling?...But about half my work was making sure every bowler in San Juan got his name in the magazine...ever since then I've hated the world bowling (Thompson, 1990, p65).

To keep himself from going crazy and pick up some extra cash, he also wrote brochures and articles for the island's government news service. About a month before the El Sportivo job came along, he had made an attempt to apply at the San Juan Star. After some strange and vicious letters, HST became friends with William Kennedy, the editor. These letters appear in The Proud Highway.

In 1962, HST started working on what would become The Rum Diary. It features the narrator, his friends Yeamon and Sala, and Sala's girlfriend Chenault.

Yeamon is a photographer while the narrator and Sala are writers for the San Juan Daily (don't know if this is meant to be the Star or a seperate paper). The excerpt, "The Price of Rum" is a few pages shorter, but similar to the excerpt in Songs of the Doomed.

As white men in a foreign place, they feel the racial tension and are eventually beaten and thrown in jail for no apparent reason. The excerpt in Songs of the Doomed goes on farther to an expensive bus ride, then to a club called the Blue Grotto where Chenault dances wildly with a black man. Chenault strips her clothes off as Yeamon frantically screams at her to stop. Yeamon tries to break up the dance but ends up being beaten. A black man helps them into a cab to go back to town, leaving Chenault at the club.

On his David Letterman appearance, Dave asked if it was a good book and HST said yes. Later, when Dave asked why it had not been published until now, HST replied (something like) "It wasn't any good." :-)