The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson

This book is the most “noir-y” book I’ve ever read.  The little prologue is a tight description of a little backyard bar in Puerto Rico, a bar that will be the safe haven of the characters in the book.  But during the whole description, I could hear the muted trumpet music and see the descending crane shot into the smoky, black-and-white bar with newspapermen drinking rum like water as they sit blankly at their tables.  And in the epilogue, we’re back in the bar, the crane now zooming out on two broken men, the muted trumpet growing louder as we wonder exactly what will happen to our anti-hero next.

My favorite part of this book was the ending — it left just the right amount of unanswered questions.  I felt uncertain of any happiness in the end, just knew that the main character would continue on his way.

But as a whole, I can see how die-hard fans of Gonzo journalism wouldn’t like this novel.  It was previously unpublished, and you can see why.  It definitely lacks the bombastic, robust style of Thompson’s other works.  For me, though, a definitively “slight” fan, it was a nice fit.  There’s no hiding the terrible events that happen, no flowery language to decode, no violence portrayed romantically.  It’s journalistic in a novel way — observant, but opinionated.  As the reader, I don’t particularly like any of the characters, but I don’t particularly hate them either.  They just exist, and that camera from the prologue and epilogue decides who’s important at the moment. All of the elements I enjoy from Thompson’s other works are here — the stark honesty, the delicious extremes, the unapologetic scenes of mayhem — but most of all, the continual sifting for the perfect explanation of a place.  Why Puerto Rico?  Why now?  What’s happening in this place at this time that makes it a story?  That delicate edge of his description, the introspective bent that brings us moments like this:

…you can go up a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes, you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Of course, that’s from Fear and Loathing, but Rum Diary had its moments like this too.  Moments where I feel like Thompson’s somehow found the exact words to “get at” a place:

Those were the good mornings, when the sun was hot and the air was quick and promising, when the Real Business seemed right on the verge of happening and I felt that if I went just a little faster I might overtake that bright and fleeting thing that was always just ahead.

Then came noon, and morning withered like a lost dream.  The sweat was torture and the rest of the day was littered with the dead remains of all those things that might have happened, but couldn’t stand the heat.

Pales when compared to later stuff, but still pretty accurate.

They’re making a movie of this, coming out in October, and I’m curious to see how it is.  Besides the perfect “noir-ness” of the prologue and epilogue, the rest of the book doesn’t have any kind of intense plot to follow…just following Paul Kemp through his time there.  Johnny Depp is playing Paul Kemp, and I’m sure he’ll be great, but it’s a little like old men playing Hamlet…oh well.  I’m sure it’ll be good with Strong Drink before The Fear sets in.  Make mine with rum.

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