The Rum Diary Review (with spoilers)

So, lovely readers, it finally happened. I read a book in 2015 that I didn’t fully enjoy. I can’t really believe it took until July, but that’s just a testament to how many incredible authors and stories there are in the world! (As well as a testament to the great taste of my family and friends).

Now, this is about to be complicated, because while I didn’t like this book, it was still really well written. So well written, in fact, that I spent much of the book’s meager 204 pages being irrationally angry that such a well written work could be so bad. The book in question? Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary.

Because I can’t fully explain my thoughts on this book without major spoilers, just be prepared if you think you’d be interested in reading The Rum Diary at some point in time. I’m spilling the beans here, not going to hold back.

REVIEW: The Rum Diary, Hunter S. Thompson
Published: 1998*
Length: 204

*Something that’s interesting to note here is that Hunter S. Thompson actually starting writing this book at 22 years old in 1959, before he was ever the cult-famous writer everyone knew in the 80s and such with Rolling Stone.

Plot: A late-20s freelance journalist goes to San Juan to write for an English-language newspaper.

Most Memorable Line(s):
IMG_0636The second paragraph on this page, part of the prologue, is so well written, and really stuck with me as I was reading. Clearly the premise of the whole story, it’s the only truly bit of honest writing I felt happened. At first, I just thought it was an interesting statement, but once I read the book, I felt like that paragraph was the only thing that gave the book even a reason for happening.

What I liked: This novel certainly had me hooked. I read it in one day of work during the down times. The way Thompson is able to string words together to paint a picture are second to none, I believe. He literally paints the picture. Every movement, every beer bottle has a specific place and Thompson very painstakingly details it out on the page. Whats’ great about it though is that it reads as effortless. It feels like you’re walking the street looking around when you’re only actually reading words on the page. It’s an impressive skill.

The one part of the book I really did enjoy – despite being captivated by the writing and wanting so much to enjoy the book – was the end. The last 10-15 pages were a hodge podge of insanity, but the end was a calm moment that I really enjoyed and thought was delivered well. It felt, honestly, like the breeze at a beach.

What I didn’t like: For the first time ever, this section is going to be longer than the last. Weird! Anyway, to get to it… You know how you read the back of a book before you dive in to see if the idea of the plot and story interesting you? It’s not often I think that the description on the back is better than the actual book. In fact, this might be the first time I’ve ever thought that. The back of this book said I’d be reading about a tangled love triangle of jealousy, get-rich-quick schemes and lust where nothing (even murder!) was off the table. Wow. That sounds like an interesting story. Unfortunately, I barely got any of those things out of the book. Sure, there’s a bit of a love triangle, and yes, the story ends with a very extremely random murder, but get-rich-quick schemes? Well, sure, I guess there is one. A sexy, mysterious woman the main character, Paul Kemp, lusts after? Yeah, there’s a girl that he’s attracted to… but I literally didn’t realize that this girl, the girlfriend of one of Kemp’s coworkers, was the same “sexy, mysterious woman” the back of the book promised me. I literally spent half of the 204 pages waiting for him to meet the next girl that he would really lust after. And then I realized my mistake. There was nothing mysterious about this girl, Chenault. Kemp just wants her – he sees her at the airport on the way to San Juan and thinks she’s sexy. Well, okay. But there’s nothing mysterious. Nothing that makes me think Kemp is obsessed with her or would do anything for her at all. Thompson puts more effort into the setting of the random backyard bar Kemp and his coworkers go to than anything else. Setting is great, but I really don’t need so much description every time someone walks into a place. As freelance journalists working for an English-language newspaper, they spend most of their time at a bar somewhere on the island of Puerto Rico. They don’t really do anything. At one point, Kemp quotes “three months in San Juan had felt like three weeks.” And honestly, the story felt that way. There never felt like there was any point to what I was reading. After getting too drunk and being attacked with Yeamon, Chenault’s abusive boyfriend and Kemps coworker, and Sala, another coworker and Kemp’s best friend at the paper, at a bar, Kemp uses his friendship with a man named Sanderson to get them out of trouble. This, along with the paper being about to fold, Kemp gets involved in what I assume is the get-rich-quick scheme: Writing the brochure for Sanderson’s roommate’s hotel venture. But he never writes the brochure as far as I know, and they only talk about the venture so that Kemp can manage to meet Chenault and Yeamon in St. Thomas for carnival. Is that literally why? Because I could think of a number of different ways to get Kemp to St. Thomas is it was necessary for the story other than a random business venture that’s hardly mentioned afterward. The scene in which Chenault, incredibly drunk in St. Thomas, literally strips naked on the dance floor and is subsequently KIDNAPPED is possibly the most intriguing thing anyone could put into a novel. The scene was incredibly well done – sensual, enraging, fearful all at the same time. But then it just ends. Yeamon and Kemp barely even look for her. They just go home on a plane the next morning. WHAT?! You finally have something to drive the rest of the story, and you just leave it. When Chenault comes back, and runs in to Kemp’s arms to avoid going back to the abusive Yeamon, he barely blinks. He lets her stay, makes love to her, and tries to figure out how to tell Yeamon. Again: What? I wrote in my notes about this book that the last 60 pages should have been the middle 60. Had Thompson really dealt with St. Thomas and Chenault’s disappearance, I may have enjoyed it more. Instead, a perpetually drunk Kemp goes back to San Juan afraid (as he is throughout the book) that he’ll lose his job when the paper folds, and just hopes Chenault comes back. Finally, when the paper does fold and his boss essentially screws him (and all of his coworkers) out of their pay, Kemp’s coworkers jump the boss – and end up killing him! AGAIN I SAY TO YOU: WHAT?! this book felt like a lot of fairly interesting (with a couple majorly interesting) things thrown together and told consecutively so it’s a “story” of this character’s time in San Juan.

Ultimately, I couldn’t enjoy this book because there is no real plot to this story. I love character stories as much as the next person, but a plot is still necessary. This story felt like a bunch of weird random things that happened when a guy was in San Juan so okay let’s just write it down and give it a title. Every time I thought a direction was forming, the storyline pretty much stopped in its tracks and was subsequently forgotten about. The main character is a lazy drunk who lusted after an abused woman but didn’t try to help her until it benefited him. You can argue, I guess, that his inner thoughts about his life’s direction gave this story a point, but I don’t buy it. The only thing that propelled this story forward was the fact that it was written on paper. The best part, aside from the writing, was the simplicity of the ending (which I mentioned above).

As I was reading, I honestly felt like Thompson was trying so hard to be that cool guy. He wanted so much to be a combo of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and he was writing the great character story of the 1950s. But it just fell so flat. There was nothing redeeming at all about Kemp, no reason for me to care about any character whatsoever. I don’t expect to like every character I read, but I want to feel as though I’m reading for a reason. The only reason to read this book is to listen to the language as you go through it. I felt as though this young Hunter S. Thompson could easily be “THAT GUY” in your writing class. Or, more particularly… your MFA.

There was something just screaming at me that even though the language was great, he was trying so hard to prove he was good enough to be writing the book. There’s nothing to prove, Hunter, you’re good enough!

Grade: 5/10 … there’s no denying that Hunter S. Thompson is a fantastic writer, but incredible writing talent is (literally) only half the battle. Without a real story to follow it up, it’s just pretty writing. And pretty writing does not a story make.


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