June 28, 2011

Early Gonzo

The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson
reviewed by Courtney

Hunter S. Thompson made a name for himself at Rolling Stone, writing satirical and absurd political and social pieces into which he inserted his authorial persona as the focal point. His brand of "Gonzo" journalism, which, abandoning all pretense of objectivity, relied on his presence in the story and the unrepentant melding of fact and fiction to generate and hold interest, led to the kind of outrageous shenanigans chronicled in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which Thompson and his attorney reel through Las Vegas, covering first a motorcycle race and then a police convention under the influence of a variety of hallucinogenic drugs. Thompson is famous for his easily parodied, over the top persona (just look to Johnny Depp's performance in Terry Gilliam's version of Fear and Loathing, or the long running caricature Uncle Duke in Doonesbury). Given the force of his personality, and the uniqueness of his writing style, it surprising to encounter the more traditional construction of The Rum Diary, Thompson's early attempt at a novel, which was unpublished until 1998.

Like most of Thompson's work, The Rum Diary is largely autobiographical. Set in Puerto Rico in the late 1950's, the story follows Paul Kemp, a journalist who moves to San Juan to work on the failing English-language newspaper, and the lives of the predominantly alcoholic and unhappy people he works with. Unlike the majority of Thompson's work, however, The Rum Diary follows a more conventional plot and narrative structure. It is easy to see the influence of great American novelists like Fitzgerald on the young Thompson's writing. Written long before the evolution of Thompson's trademark outrageous Gonzo writing style, The Rum Diary sees him trying for a more naturalistic tone. The strength of his writing is easily apparent without the ego that dominated most of his later work, and it is striking to realize how unsupportable the personality-driven Gonzo-era writing would have been without that underlying talent.

Written when Thompson was in his early 20's, The Rum Diary focuses on themes of boredom and stasis. The fear of aging and irrelevance that motivated much of his later work is already apparent, and it is particularly poignant in light of his 2005 suicide. Thompson's suicide note, as published in a tribute in Rolling Stone and titled "Football Season Is Over," included: "67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring... No Fun for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax This won't hurt." Thompson was a truly remarkable person, a vehement libertarian; he was as unrepentant and vocal about his love of drugs, alcohol, and firearms as his hatred of Richard Nixon. One of those rare, charismatic people who lives as outrageously as he talks, Thompson was infinitely quotable, and impossible to ignore. He came very close to being elected in 1970 as the sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, running on the "Freak Power" ticket, and his funeral, planned years in advance and financed by his friend Johnny Depp, featured an enormous cannon, which blasted fireworks and his ashes into the sky to the sound of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man," and was attended by as disparate a group of friends as John Kerry, Charlie Rose, Jack Nicholson, and Lyle Lovett.

You didn't have to agree with Thompson's politics or his lifestyle, but underneath the Gonzo persona he was a talented and beautiful writer. Thompson's vitriolic pessimism and his breathless optimism were both supported by his underlying idealism and patriotism, and it is interesting to watch the young writer struggle with many of the same issues that would dominate his writing throughout his career. The Rum Diary is important as the early output of a notable and inventive American writer, but it is also, in signature Thompson style, great fun to read. The myth of Thompson has long since eclipsed his actual self, but his take-no-prisoners writing style, and the impossibly high standards to which he held himself as well as the politicians he wrote about, as present in The Rum Diary as any of his later work, are as or more relevant today as ever. It is hard to pinpoint the lasting appeal of the Thompson myth, but as he wrote in Gonzo Papers, Vol. 1: The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time: "Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men's reality. Weird heroes and mould-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of 'the rat race' is not yet final."

Posted by at June 28, 2011 06:00 PM
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