"'The Rum Diary' is the potential high water mark of 20th century literature," Hunter S. Thompson wrote in a 1961 letter to his friend and fellow aspiring novelist William Kennedy, referring to the novel he was working on at the time. "It is a novel more gripping than 'The Ginger Man,' more skillfully rendered than 'The Sergeant,' more compassionate than 'A Death in the Family,' and more important than 'Lie Down in Darkness.'" Thompson was a journalist in his early 20s at the time, having left New York City to take a string of reporting jobs in Puerto Rico. Nearly a decade away from the so-called "gonzo" reporting on the Hell's Angels and Las Vegas that would make him a national institution, he was prone to such desperate overstatements. But after spending decades languishing on various publishers' desks (although portions of the novel have appeared elsewhere), a reworked "Rum Diary" has finally appeared, in its modest but youthful glory. While Joyce and Faulkner -- and even Agee -- might have a bone to pick with that "high water mark of 20th century literature" business, it's a remarkably full and mature first novel. Thompson never did tell a lie that didn't have a hint of the truth to it.
Indeed, the story of "The Rum Diary" is close to Thompson's own early experience in journalism's ink-stained and liquor-soaked trenches. Paul Kemp, a writer who's grown tired of New York, decides on a lark to take a job with the San Juan Daily News. "Why not?" he tells the staff photographer when he arrives. "A man could do worse than the Caribbean." "You should've kept on going south," the photographer grunts. Slowly, Kemp starts peeling layers off of the sunny, rum-laden myth of his new habitat and discovers what his colleague meant: The government is corrupt, the locals are violently opposed to the yanqui interlopers and the paper itself is rapidly collapsing. The novel catalogs numerous scuffles with the law and bitter editors, but the heart of its story is Kemp's collision with himself, whether falling in love with the unattainably beautiful Chenault, a fellow American refugee, or contemplating his morality (and mortality) while trapped in the snare of one lost weekend after another. "I ... sat there and drank, trying to decide if I was getting older and wiser, or just plain old," he says.
"The Rum Diary" has little of the manic tension or wordplay that pervades much of Thompson's reporting. Instead, it's a languid, lovingly executed book that reveals its emotional depths slowly, at the same pace that Kemp himself discovers the things he fears and loathes about San Juan. Unfortunately, by the time the book reaches its climax at a massive street festival in St. Thomas, there's nothing particularly compelling about Thompson's narrative of the frazzled and alcoholic events that ensue. More existential than gonzo, Kemp keeps busy contemplating his ugly predicament instead of enthusiastically pursuing whatever happens next. "When the sun got hot enough," he recalls, "it burned away all the illusions and I saw the place as it was -- cheap, sullen, and garish -- nothing good was going to happen here." "The Rum Diary" ultimately becomes not so much a novel about how to live in a foreign land, but a cautionary tale about why it's worth escaping.