A Review of The Rum Diary

Page added: 1998
Last updated: Winter 2003

by S.E. Munday, c1998

In The Rum Diary (Simon & Schuster, 1998), Hunter Thompson has extended welcoming arms and enfolded us in his sun-soaked memories of Puerto Rico. Although purportedly a novel, one can't help but imagine that Thompson has drawn upon his enormous store of remembrances to create a familiar feeling around the book's hero, Paul Kemp.

Abandoning New York City in winter for the voluptuous breezes of the Caribbean, Kemp encounters the usual assortment of characters that Thompson's readers can always expect: Lotterman, his unpredictable boss; Sala, the crazed photographer; Sanderson, the suave man-about-town attempting to outrun his Kansan roots (which begs a comparison to Thompson's views on his own Kentucky upbringing); and Yeamon, the wanderer, crazy and antagonistic, and shackled with beautiful blonde Chenault. As a matter of fact, each character could easily be a part of Thompson's multi-faceted personality. And the blonde? Surely a nod goes to then-girlfriend (now ex-wife) Sandy, who spent time in Puerto Rico with Thompson during those early, pre-Gonzo days.

But there's something else that Thompson gives us in this book, something I first caught a glimpse of in Generation of Swine. The sun shines from virtually every page. There is a thoughtfulness that seems to spring from the fondness he holds for his past. The easy ways of youth, when adapting was easy, lead us to a carefree look into the life of a man who wasn't yet sure what he wanted, but adamant in what he didn't. A sort of charming respectability lingers in the pages and, even though Kemp seems unsure of himself when things get rough, he at least contemplates doing the honorable thing. This is a trait I've rarely encountered in any of Thompson's previous work. You can almost see him pondering his past, partly missing and partly hating it, determined to get it all down before he forgets how life felt when all the world was new and every option was an opportunity.

Of course, luck invariably begins to run out for Kemp; he moves on, as journalists do. Part of me was sad to see him go. His adventures on the island were alternately moving and horrifying. But I loved reading this book. I felt good reading it. It does not have the same savage waywardness that I have come to expect from Thompson, yet it's elegance is breathtaking and there is a gentleness that I always suspected lurked in the heart of Louisville's famous son. Here is a new, but unchanged Thompson. And there is more than enough room in this world for him to give us as many different versions of himself as he pleases.

S.E. Munday has also written The Search for Hunter S. Thompson and has also provided TGTH with some scans for the book covers section as well as the promotional items for The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo.