Weekly Wire
Tucson Weekly Rum Punch

Why Hunter S. Thompson Should Stick To Substance Abuse.

By Jim Carvalho

DECEMBER 28, 1998: 

The Rum Diary, by Hunter S. Thompson (Simon & Schuster). Cloth, $24.

I THINK PERHAPS the only answer is an instant rewrite of The Rum Diary and a quick sale to the movies. My gimmick is an interracial orgy that should stand hair on end from London to Long Beach. The KKK will send goons after me if the thing ever appears.

--Hunter S. Thompson, 1964


THE KLAN WON'T be showing up any time soon. Neither will the Pulitzer Prize. Forty years after he began writing it, Hunter S. Thompson's only novel, The Rum Diary, has finally been published. It's easy to see why it took so long. As artifact and research tool, The Rum Diary is a valuable companion piece to the recently published first volume of Thompson's collected letters, The Proud Highway. As a novel, it's disappointing.

After a comfortable middle-class childhood and an alcohol-soaked adolescence in Louisville, Kentucky, Hunter Thompson was arrested for theft, missed his high-school graduation, and was released from jail on the condition he enlist in the armed forces. After leaving the Air Force, where he was sports editor of the Eglin Command Courier, he wrote for various periodicals, struggled with The Rum Diary, and regularly blew his meager earnings on liquor, dogs, guns, and ammo (the drugs came later). When he wasn't writing, drinking, or hunting, Thompson made a nuisance of himself. In New York City, he amused himself by emptying 50-pound sacks of lye on innocent bar patrons. In Puerto Rico, he worked for a struggling English-language newspaper. (His experiences there are the basis for The Rum Diary.) In Big Sur, he worked as a security guard for the Esalen Institute, wrote a controversial exposé on the local arts scene, and ran gays out of the baths with the help of dogs, clubs, and Joan Baez. And in Central and South America, while working for the National Observer, he developed three trademark habits: running up enormous tabs on his employers' expense accounts, skipping town without paying his bills, and missing deadlines.

Thompson achieved a breakthrough in 1965 when he wrote a provocative article on motorcycle gangs for The Nation. The success of the article led to the publication of his first full-length book in 1966. Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga was a jaw-dropping insider's look at the violent biker subculture, widely hailed as a groundbreaking piece of participatory journalism. (Thompson rode and partied with the Angels until he was stomped.) Not long afterwards, Thompson began a long and productive relationship with Rolling Stone, writing one of the magazine's first non-music articles, "Strange Rumblings in Aztlan."

In 1971, Rolling Stone published Thompson's account of a drug-crazed road trip to Las Vegas, and as Thompson might say, the fat hit the fire. Later published in book form, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is Thompson's masterwork, and a trailblazing piece of literature. In 1971, no one had written or read anything like it. Subtitled "A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream," the story begins with one of modern literature's most memorable opening lines: "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold." The book introduced the phrase fear and loathing to the American lexicon, and put Thompson (and Rolling Stone) on the map. Most importantly, it introduced readers to Thompson's invention: the unique blend of biting social commentary and first-person reporting that would come to be known as "Gonzo journalism."

Laced with liberal doses of drugs, drink, and violence (real or imagined) Thompson's Gonzo reporting not only places the reporter on the scene, it makes him the center of the action. Here is Thompson's description, as quoted in a 1991 biography by William McKeen:

My idea was to buy a fat notebook and record the whole thing as it happened, then send in the notebook for publication--without editing. That way, I felt the eye and mind of the journalist would be functioning as a camera. The writing would be selective and necessarily interpretive--but once the image was written, the words would be final; in the same way that a Cartier-Bresson photograph is always (he says) the full-frame negative. No alterations in the darkroom, no cutting or cropping, no spotting...no editing...True Gonzo reporting needs the talents of a master journalist, the eye of an artist/ photographer and the heavy balls of an actor. Because the writer must be a participant in the scene, while he's writing it....

This technique separated Thompson from other so-called New Journalists like Tom Wolfe, who were content to observe events from the sidelines. Wolfe's writing was also much tamer than Thompson's. For proof, compare Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test with Thompson's Hell's Angels. Their descriptions of the Hell's Angels-Merry Pranksters bash, particularly the Mountain Girl gangbang, couldn't be more different in style and content. (Thompson, by the way, introduced the Angels to Ken Kesey's Pranksters; he predicted the bikers would stomp the hippies once the acid took hold. Alas, only good vibes ensued.)

Critics of Thompson's work complain about his use of exaggeration as a journalistic tool, and bemoan Gonzo journalism's blurring of the distinction between fact and fiction. (Someone once said Thompson never lets the facts get in the way of a good story.) But if Thompson does indeed make stuff up (I believe he does), so what? Readers should simply keep that in mind when reading his work. Deliberate exaggeration is at the heart of Thompson's style. If much of what he writes is bullshit, that doesn't make it any less true.

Thompson's critics are also disturbed by his lack of objectivity. But in Gonzo journalism, there is no pretense of objectivity. Thompson's journalism is heavily influenced by the brilliant work of that master of American letters H.L. Mencken, whose biting social commentary was rarely objective. In Better than Sex (1994), Thompson acknowledges Mencken's influence and spanks the critics who complain about his lack of objectivity. Commenting on Mencken's scathing obituary of William Jennings Bryan, Thompson writes: It was clearly opinion--but I believed it then and I believe it now...Mencken understood that politics--as used in journalism--was the art of controlling his environment, and he made no apologies for it. In my case...I've used reporting as a weapon to affect political situations that bear down on my environment.

Thompson owes much to Mencken, whose social commentary, bitter sarcasm, use of insults and epithets, iconoclasm, and philosophical underpinnings (libertarian) are all present in Thompson's writing. He's no Mencken clone, however. The master's use of vocabulary, for example, is much more elegantly nuanced than Thompson's--Mencken's mountebank and buncombe have (d)evolved into Thompson's punk and bullshit, but mostly that's a sign of the times. And unlike Thompson, no one who mattered ever accused Mencken of making stuff up to make a point. Nevertheless, his influence on Thompson is undeniable; and that influence makes Thompson the link between Mencken and other author-journalists like P.J. O'Rourke (Thompson's successor at Rolling Stone), Alexander Cockburn, Christopher Hitchens, Charles Bowden and Edward Abbey, who described himself as "a Hunter S. Thompson freak." (Thompson's influence on friends Jim Harrison, Russell Chatham, and Jimmy Buffett seems restricted to matters of lifestyle.)

After the success of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson wrote Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, which contains some of the best campaign coverage and commentary ever written, and details what is perhaps Thompson's most notorious piece of participatory journalism: After reporting that candidate Ed Muskie was addicted to Ibogaine (an obscure substance), Muskie's campaign was derailed. In 1979, a collection of Thompson's short pieces was released as The Great Shark Hunt: Gonzo Papers Volume 1, followed by The Curse of Lono (a sort of Fear and Loathing in Hawaii), and three more volumes of Gonzo Papers: Generation of Swine, Songs of the Doomed, and Better than Sex. The first volume of Thompson's letters, The Proud Highway, was released in 1997.


NOW, ALMOST FOUR decades after its conception, comes The Rum Diary, Thompson's first published novel. References to The Rum Diary appear throughout The Proud Highway's letters, where Thompson talks about his desire to write The Great American Novel. At one point in Highway, after numerous revisions and rejections of the novel, he confides that he has found an outlet for his frustrated ambitions as a novelist--a new kind of creative journalism. I found that revelation fascinating, since it marks the birth of Gonzo journalism. Now, after reading The Rum Diary, I recall that same revelation with a sigh of relief, since it's evident Thompson didn't stand a chance as a novelist.

Parts of The Rum Diary (now subtitled "The Long Lost Novel") first appeared in Thompson's 1990 collection, Songs of the Doomed, and more recently appeared in The New Yorker. Set in the late 1950s, The Rum Diary tells the story of Paul Kemp, a young journalist who takes a job on the San Juan Daily News, Puerto Rico's English-language newspaper. It's a struggling paper, always on the verge of bankruptcy. Its staff is a gang of misfits and losers, drifters and drunks, has-beens and beginners. Paul Kemp--who first appeared in "Prince Jellyfish," a short piece of fiction also presented in Songs of the Doomed--is Thompson, of course, and it's interesting to see the Gonzo paradigm upended: In Thompson's journalism, he incorporates fiction; in The Rum Diary, much of the action is undoubtedly true. The book recounts Kemp's adventures and misadventures with his colleagues and bosses; and like many other Thompson stories, it includes a character that serves as Thompson-Kemp's alter ego. The most notable example of this device is found in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' Dr. Gonzo, a character based on Thompson's friend, Oscar Acosta. In The Rum Diary, the alter ego is personified by a character named Yeamon, a wild, violent drunk who loses his job, and then his girl, to the depravities of Thompson's grimy Caribbean.

Throughout the 1960s, The Rum Diary went through numerous revisions and was rejected by every publisher Thompson sent it to. It's not hard to see why. It reads like a first novel...and a sloppy, unfocused one at that. It contains laughable inanities: It was almost May. I knew that New York was getting warm now, that London was wet, that Rome was hot--and I was on Vieques, where it was always hot and where New York and London and Rome were just names on a map...And unnecessary elaborations: Most of these people appeared to be expatriates--not tourists, but the type who looked like they might live here on the island, or at least somewhere in the Caribbean.... It also succumbs to obvious literary devices clumsily employed, such as appearances of Conrad's Heart of Darkness and The Nigger of the Narcissus in the hands of characters on the verge of conflict.

Thompson has been criticized for avoiding sex in his writings, but The Rum Diary will leave those critics counting their blessings, since the book contains some of the most unerotic love scenes I've ever read. And if Thompson's "gimmick," the "interracial orgy," raised any eyebrows in 1959, it's downright tame (or just lame) by contemporary standards.

There are other concerns: The book contains at least one reference to a real-life event that never happened, and the fact that 20 of the book's 21 chapters are almost exactly the same length reeks of formula. There are also grounds to argue the story is several chapters too long.

Before the good Dr. Thompson comes after me with his dogs and his Samoan war club, let me hasten to add that there are things to like about The Rum Diary as well. Thompson's depiction of the carnival madness in St. Thomas is masterful, and the suspense level rises nicely as the story heads toward its climax. It's also nice to see that almost 40 years ago Thompson was already beginning to sound like an unpolished version of his literary old man, Mencken. Thompson's trademark use of biting commentary and vicious insult was already in full swing, if not yet finely tuned. Here his protagonist, Kemp, describes a fellow journalist:

Moberg was a degenerate...He was lewd and corrupt in every way. He hated the taste of rum, yet he would finish a bottle in ten minutes, then vomit and fall down. He ate nothing but sweet rolls and spaghetti, which he would heave the moment he got drunk. He spent all his money on whores and when that got dull he would take on an occasional queer, just for the strangeness of it. He would do anything for money, and this is the man we had on the police beat. Often he disappeared for days at a time. Then someone would have to track him down through the dirtiest bars in La Perla, a slum so foul that on maps of San Juan it appears as a blank space. La Perla was Moberg's headquarters; he felt at home there, he said, and in the rest of the city--except for a few horrible bars--he was a lost soul.

Some of Thompson's letters from The Proud Highway--letters that eloquently convey the frustration and despondency he felt while going through The Rum Diary's grueling cycle of revision and rejection--make one tempted to go easy on the old sot. But a few lines from Fear and Loathing will make the tender-hearted reader snap back to his senses. Hunter Thompson wouldn't hesitate to kick a man when he's down; he wouldn't hesitate to call a spade a spade. So here's the bottom line on The Long Lost Novel: As a specimen for study of the development of Thompson's style, and as a companion piece to the fine Proud Highway, The Rum Diary is worthwhile. As literature, it's worthless.


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