Journalist Paul Kemp has left New York and arrived in San Juan to work for a slowly failing newspaper. A newspaper, besieged by angry workers, assaulting journalists and scabs. The newsroom at the Daily News is made up of every kind of drunk, pervert, thief and vagabond with the occasional competent writer; Kemp finds himself at home as they try to put out a decent newspaper.
As Kemp digs into this tropical paradise, he finds himself embroiled with Hal Sanderson, the charming PR executive who has his finger on the pulse of Puerto Rico as well as the throat. Due a regrettable incident involving being attacked by locals at a bar and ‘resisting arrest’, Kemp finds himself in his debt and slowly seduced by Sanderson’s money and lifestyle. As deals are made and bargains struck, Kemp finds his morals questioned and his beliefs tested. To makes matters worst, he is lusting after another man’s woman.
Hunter S Thompson, the father of gonzo journalism, wrote the Rum Diary as a young man while working on an English-language newspaper in Puerto Rico. Though Kemp is a moth-eaten journalist in his mid-thirties and he was in his twenties, his time there had a lasting effect on the writer, which would be the foundations of his further work as a journalist and writer.
Written at just twenty-two, Thompson already wrote with an observant eye, sharper than a surgeon’s scalpel, and displays a blunt wisdom beyond his years. You can see the gonzo, Hunter S Thompson, we’ve come to know, love and fear, in the making. The Rum Diary throws the wry look at the American dream, it’s cannibalistic and gluttonous nature as it whores out the Caribbean paradise, one beach at a time. Bowling alleys and casinos pop up every day, giving homesick American tourists somewhere to go when their cruise ships stop by.
Puerto Rico is very much an American colony, it still is as far as I know, which is at the whim of the United States. Much like the lower middle class of British Victorian society who would parade themselves as aristocracy over the natives, Americans of similar stock would migrate to this small island and set themselves as the elite of society.
Thompson describes how the island is sacrificed for the name of ‘progress’, though I don’t know how dynamiting reefs, filling up beaches with hotels and casinos progress but Kemp sees these wheels turn. Kemp is disgusted by what he sees.
Unfortunately, he finds himself in bed with the enemy though it is slow to realise this. Seduced by money and security, at first, it was great but soon he would have to make a decision. I can only imagine, at one point in his life, Thompson was faced with a similar predicament as Kemp and they both made the same choice.
The choice of Christopher Lane to perform The Rum Diary was a great choice though it did not hit me till once I was deep into the story. You see, I first read this as a now battered paperback, then watched the Johnny Depp film and finally came to the audiobook. So before I put my headphones on, I had, I suppose, expectations for Paul Kemp. Narrow-minded, I know, and Lane blew them out of the water.
He performs the Rum Diary in a contemplating, conversational rhythm and pace, which flows effortlessly through the story, makes him the perfect choice. From the rampant, drunk parties to the quieter moments of Kemp’s time in Puerto Rico, Lane controls the beat and pulse of the narrative, speeding the listener’s heart and slowing it again when appropriate.
Though written when he was just twenty-two, the Rum Diary was left alone for forty years before being published and I am grateful it was not lost completely. More than just a rum fueled romp, it is subtle though intense read that will make you think.
Whether you’re an aspiring journalist, a fan of Hunter or simply looking for a good audiobook, The Rum Diary is a must listen.
P.S Also watch the movie, though it does differ from the novel, it is a wonderful interpretation of the Rum Diary.