Not a decade before his invective was sharpened to a stabbing point, before he was paired with a British illustrator whose deranged inspirations garishly smeared freakish descriptions of latter-day institutional knavery and meretricious serfdom between paragraphs, before Bill Cardoso's hands first typed the word "Gonzo" in famed description, perhaps months prior to so many extraordinarily graphic accounts of bikers, junkies, politicians and other figures who deserved the periphery of society's attention rather than the central focus they enjoyed, Hunter S. Thompson scribed a novel in which his gifts of character analysis and period evocation were readily evident. The Rum Diary assumes a depth and maturity that belies the age of its author (HST was but twenty-two when he started it), and which outstrips the more vividly involved yet two-dimensional quality of his later fiction and reportage. Perhaps not entirely comfortable with himself or his relative lack of experience (America's most visible madman journalist and author was not yet a founding luminary of New Journalism), Thompson opted to burden a wholly fictional character - transient columnist Paul Kemp - with his identity, which would later be so amplified and distinguished to defy the notion of an invented equivalent.
Fleeing from hostile, inclement New York to steamy San Juan, Kemp finds employment at The Daily News, a mediocre Anglophone newspaper floundering in the shadow of the Miami Herald. Based very loosely on The San Juan Star (then newly founded and far more successful in reality), the News is at best a middling establishment owned and managed by one Ed Lotterman, a former communist of dubious competence whose newsroom is occupied by drifting wastrels and gifted professionals alike. Kemp's colleagues include: photographer Robert Sala, whose obsessive pessimism conceals essential decency; brutish, choleric Yeamon, a reporter of modest talent and a propensity for trouble; scheming, underhanded Nick Segarra, a sinecured fortunate son whose position is secured solely by dint of liaison; libertine newsman Moberg, a debauched and perverted Swede on the police beat; news desk editor Schwartz, an orderly workaholic whose joviality and competence belies an occasionally vicious temperament. Most prominent among Kemp's other acquaintances are Hal Sanderson, an amiable public relations executive secretly desperate to escape his humble Midwestern roots through success; churlish Marine Corps veteran Zimburger, whose ambitions as a tourism real estate developer both fascinate and revolt our protagonist; Yeamon's girlfriend Chenault, a zaftig, oversexed nymphet whose amorous appetites secrete an uncommon tenderness. Not one of this lot doesn't drink his or her weight in rum in the course of this story - a tasty luxury that speeds their course to personal and professional disaster.
Written in HST's uncomplicated, idiomatic prose and consequently brimming with imaginative analogue and picturesque description, The Rum Diary only suffers in dearth of that redemptive undercurrent of black humor that pervaded Thompson's best work. A darkness borne of his characters' fear, paranoia and doubt renders too many chapters ponderous without sufficient comic relief - a balance that HST maintained long thereafter. Nonetheless, there's so much to admire of a book credibly written in a perspective of weathered middle-age in rueful reminiscence to one's early thirties, by a man who wasn't yet in his mid-twenties. Most of Thompson's characterizations and scenarios were inspired by his acquaintanceship with employees of the Star and his own position at a struggling sports publication, and both his experiences and those of others molded Kemp's misadventures. As Thompson observed, so Kemp painfully evaluates the savagery of rural natives, police and tourists alike in Puerto Rico and neighboring St. Thomas, and their common venality shared by ugly American opportunists, most but a generation - perhaps two - removed from peasantry themselves, all intent on profiting from postwar expansion. Here, too, The Rum Diary is nearly unique among fiction of its age: few other American authors lamented the impending loss of natural beauty in the wake of development as soulfully as Thompson. Its penultimate chapter strikes home with manslaughter before a gently melancholy conclusion, scribed with prose so expressive that a reader may well smell, taste and hear Caribbean sea breeze, shot-glass rum, noise of argument, motorcycle and jukebox in predawn San Juan.
This is nearly as smart, lively, gutsy and sexy as American novels came in the '60s, a story of its moment and locale celebrating the wearily righteous (though hardly innocent) set adrift in a depraved world, a distinction that assured its rock-solid moral core.