The Rum Diary Review
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Fear and Loathing in the 1950s

Contrary to pop culture knowledge, Hunter S. Thompson wrote several impressive books prior to his 1971 smashing take on the aging ”drug culture” of the ‘60s, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Perhaps the best of these offerings is a novel (Thompson’s first) called The Rum Diary. Set in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the late ‘50s, the novel is a laugh-out-loud look at the state of “foreign” English journalism and one man’s quest to ride and abuse the system of the powers that be, if necessary, right to the bitter end.

Fueled by the introspective and painfully comical look at life that Thompson is famous for, the novel examines the thoughts and actions of Paul Kemp, a journalist who’s grown tired of living in New York, as he starts a new job working for a fledgling English language newspaper in the hostile and corrupt setting of 1950s San Juan. Along the way, he meets Yemin, a young, energetic, and notoriously egotistical fellow journalist, his girlfriend, Chenault (who has various affairs throughout the novel and is the chief love interest), and Sala, who plays the part of the disenchanted veteran photographer. From the start, the three (Kemp, Yemen, and Sala) seem determined to sink the paper that they work for by behaving in a completely irresponsible (and more often than not drunken) fashion. They have a series of misadventures, all told in that witty and almost psychotic narrative that is the very essence of Thompson’s writing.

The truly brilliant thing about this novel is its stark contrast to the typical view of the period in which it was written. Life in the ‘50s is usually portrayed as a wholesome, family-oriented Leave It to Beaver type of existence, but this novel explains the truth of the matter—that it was just as wild and unpredictable and open and free as the society we live in today. That is, all of these things existed but were obviously swept beneath a carpet of ignorance (and upon reading the novel, one almost understands why).

The book reaches its climax in St. Thomas during a giant street festival, where Kemp ultimately abandons his earlier view of paradise as a glorious, rum-soaked, orgy of adventure and remarks, “it burned away all the illusions, and I saw the place as it was—cheap, sullen, and garish—nothing good was going to happen here.”

To the easily-offended reader, beware. This book isn’t for you. If you’re appalled by open sexuality, excessive drinking, alternative lifestyles, or plain old inappropriate fun, do not attempt to read this book. It will only serve to make you angry. But for anyone looking for a good, immoral laugh at life and excess, set in an exciting tropical landscape, this is the perfect book for you. Take it on your next vacation—and be sure to finish it before the film version, starring Johnny Depp, is released later this year.

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