Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson

Hunter's first book THE RUM DIARY, begun in 1959 at age 22, wasn't published until 1998. Johnny Depp had a hand in its publication, as the manuscript had been set aside and Depp, as Hunter's friend, read it and wanted to option the story for a later film. The film differs in ways from the novel. For instance, the blond, Chenault, is the girlfriend of someone who works at the newspaper with Kemp, and he doesn't want to take her away from the guy, whereas in the film Chenault is girlfriend of a conniving developer. (The reason for the film change is that it adds tension and focus, as Depp does want to lure her away from money with charm, since the developer treats her as property. Amber Heard, who played the role, is now Depp's girlfriend in real life.) The plot concerns a writer who goes to Puerto Rico to take a job at the Daily News, which is floundering under the maniacal leadership of Lotterman, the editor in chief, a stalwart journalist with a highly excitable demeanor. Lotterman is forced to deal with eccentric people everywhere he turns, but even with the paper on the ropes he can't fire whom he wants to without paying them a severance package. So he tolerates insanity while fighting to keep the paper going with articles on bowling and inane social events instead of the hard reporting that Kemp wants to do. A parallel story that's more evident in the film concerns the PR guy turned developer named Sanderson, who attempts to get Kemp to write favorable stories about the hotels a group of opportunists intend to build. (Kemp turns the tables, and gets the girl in the process.) The major way the book differs from the film, of course, is due to the nature of film itself, a medium which doesn't have time to tell much of what happens behind the scenes. What happens isn't particularly important, but it is revelatory and even poignant. You get a sense of actually living in Puerto Rico at the time: the sights and sounds, the rum parties and protests. Mostly you get a sense of what motivates Kemp, which is a kind of wistful nostalgia toward what else he might be doing with his life. At several points he wonders what his life would be like if he just hopped a plane for South America, or hitched a ride on a yacht to an island south of Puerto Rico, and started over. Several of his friends yap over the same ideas in bars, although few of them ever follow through. Kemp reminds himself (this being a first person novel narrated on audio by the excellent and engaging Christopher Lane) that at least he's got a job amid the craziness, and a place to sleep near the ocean, with cheap rum and occasional adventure. What nags at him is what is happening over there, just beyond his life. Is it more real? Is he missing out? In the end Lotterman is killed, and Kemp is implicated by association with the group that did it, and so he is forced to leave or face possible arrest. The novel ends with this:

Sala called for more drink and Sweep brought four rums, saying they were on the house. We thanked him and sat for another half hour, saying nothing. Down on the waterfront I could hear the slow clang of a ship's bell as it eased against the pier, and somewhere in the city a motorcycle roared through the narrow streets, sending its echo up the hill to Calle O'Leary. Voices rose and fell in the house next door and the raucous sound of a jukebox came from a bar down the street. Sounds of a San Juan night, drifting across the city through layers of humid air; sounds of life and movement, people getting ready and people giving up, the sound of hope and the sound of hanging on, and behind them all, the quiet, deadly ticking of a thousand hungry clocks, the lonely sound of time passing in the long Caribbean night.

Proud Highway is a collection of letters by Hunter to publishers and friends. Hunter despised war, although he owned guns and took his own life with one. He satirized warmongers like Nixon. What would he think of today's gun-happy culture? 

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