“This is the Thompson who still read Hemingway, who was still enchanted with palm tree paradises and seedy gentlemen in linen suits sipping gin on shady porches.”


The Rum Diary Hunter S. Thompson

When the rum drinking starts before noon, you rarely make it through the night. Or so goes the tale of Hunter S. Thompson’s, The Rum Diary, set in San Juan, Puerto Rico in the late 50’s.

The Rum Diary was begun in 1959, when HST was only 22 years old and is considered his first novel, even though it was only published in 1998. 1998 was also, coincidentally, the year I decided to run off to Mexico in search of paradise. Coincidentally, because had I read it before becoming an expatriate I wouldn’t have enjoyed or understood it nearly as much and just might have reconsidered my decision…nah.  The Rum Diary proves Hunter S. was a great writer even at such a young age, all the colorful insights we love in his essays indeed translate brilliantly into fiction. If there is such a thing as “fiction” in Hunter S. Thompson, his living legend status and blazing technicolor personality make accepting this tale as mere fiction absolutely impossible. If “Rum Diary” isn’t a near autobiographical account of young HST stumbling drunk & wide eyed through the Caribbean as a struggling young journalist waxing grandiose about debauchery–I want nothing of it.

This isn’t Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it just isn’t that funny, it’s serious and sad and tragic with an innocence and a frustration that the world weary Thompson hasn’t shown us in years, if ever. This is the Thompson you wouldn’t be scared to sit next to in a bar. It’s still the fast and furious, drinking buckets with the world ever threatening to tumble down about your ears, but with ample moments of pause and reflection. This is the Thompson who still read Hemingway, who was still enchanted with palm tree paradises and seedy gentlemen in linen suits sipping gin on shady porches. This is Thompson when he was still clinging to the old world, still seeking a peaceful leisure in the midst of chaos, before he chucked out youth and delusion, barreling down some Las Vegas desert highway.

I don’t profess to be a HST expert, I’m too young, I’ve got about 30 years to catch up on.  The Rum Diary is actually what got me into Thompson to begin with, a couple years ago I read an excerpt in Rolling Stone, who he still regularly writes for, and I was hooked. I ran out and bought Fear & Loathing right about the time the movie came out and HST got a whole new generation of fans.  And well, I just haven’t been quite “right” since. I picked up a real warped sense of humor and get way too much enjoyment out of stories about the merry lost souls flapping and flailing their way down some full speed ahead self destruction.

The Rum Diary was a US National Bestseller and won Thompson a New York Times Notable Book of 1998 award and well deserves it’s every praise, but it’s by no means a light and breezy tropical tale. It’s about what happens in a Caribbean boomtown when a dejected lot of wandering ex-pats arrive seeking fame, fortune, cheap rum and the occasional glimpse at paradise. It’s a tale about seeking peace and quiet while dancing in a riot and running for your life. Of course no good can come of it, but as always the search for paradise continues. Not the most flattering look at ex-pat society but Hunter’s world is rarely pretty and this is prettier than most. And at 40 years old, The Rum Diary, is just as timely and insightful as ever about seediness, tropical dreaming and human nature.

At once contemplative and coherent, yet purely Hunter S., reading The Rum Diary is like learning a dark secret about an old friend. Now that he’s let his guard down, should we be expecting him to dig up some long lost book of poetry? Now that would be something.

-October 2000