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NinthWanderer

NinthWanderer

Have Coffee, Will Travel

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The Rum Diary - Hunter S. Thompson Five decades ago, Thompson wrote what is probably the best summary I've seen of how I feel about the newspaper industry now.

I shared a vagrant optimism that some of us were making real progress, that we had taken an honest road, and that the best of us would inevitably make it over the top.

At the same time, I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between these two poles--a restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other--that kept me going.


This book might just convince me to run off to Brazil. There must be an English language newspaper in Rio or some other sultry city by the sea.

I've always been possessed by a peculiar sort of wanderlust. I say peculiar because I've never been anywhere outside the United States -- except for a couple of brief excursions into Canada -- despite a constant sense of longing for the exotic. I've dreamed of London, Paris and Prague, of Kenya, China and Nicaragua. The notion of shedding myself of anything but a backpack full of clothes, a journal and a camera and setting off for distant, dirty, dangerous climes appeals to the explorer within me who has never truly been allowed to come out and play. My latest fantasy involves chucking it all and running off to Brazil to teach English, and living in some low-rent place I don't care is a fleabag as long as it's near a beach.

But the sad reality is that I am a creature of comfort. I like running water and refrigerators and air conditioning a little too much to give them up, and so my travels have been limited to fiction or the occasional guide book found on the $1 rack at some shop, which I thumb through with glee, lingering over place names and dog-earing the pages with places that in the moment I tell myself I'll go.

This brief novel of Thompson's is my first trip to Puerto Rico, and I feel wrung having finished it.

This book reads like the template for every rock biopic Hollywood ever made. Begin with hope and enthusiasm, the raw energy of starting something new, but then take the characters on a descent into alcohol, drugs and violence, then break up the band and watch them go their separate ways to attempt to rebuild the lives ruined by the pressures of instant fame. Substitute "newspaper" for "band" and you've got the basic plot structure of this book.

Paul Kemp, the protagonist, arrives in Puerto Rico from New York in the late 1950s with not much money but some talent and a taste for the exotic experiences San Juan has to offer. The book starts with everyone having fun, drinking copious amounts of rum, getting paid for doing not much work, eating lobster pulled fresh from the sea, and generally treating life as a party. Life is a party for the crowd at the San Juan Daily News at first, until too much alcohol begets violence, and too much free-spending by the owner begets the demise of the newspaper. The characters ultimately become victims of their own arrogance, their own sense of entitlement as white American men in backward, corrupt Puerto Rico, and go their separate ways at the end having to reassemble the fragments of their lives.

In some ways, the book is a cautionary tale filled with contemptable people who do contemptable things to each other, and the reader is left with a sense that none of them quite got what they deserved.

It's a book about selling your soul for a buck, or perhaps just for a paper cup of rum.

It's also about that particularly American brand of colonialism -- developers occupying the territory with their money, their hotels, their yachts, their vacation houses.

The book looks at a beautiful beach and crystal waters, then overturns the rocks and lets ugly things scurry out into the light.

And yet, it stoked my sense of wanderlust. I wanted to be there in that stifling hot apartment that Kemp shared with Sala, the photographer. Or at Al's ordering hamburgers and rum. Or sleeping on the beach at St. Thomas and then playing in the morning surf. I wanted to be there because Thompson intertwines the beautiful and the profane with such vividness that I want to see it for myself, even though his San Juan no longer exists.

And I wanted to be there because somehow Thompson created in Kemp a character who resonated with me, as despicable as he was at points in the novel. His thoughts about journalism, about the demise of the Daily News (and incidentally, my first reporting job was at a paper called the Daily News), about how what he wanted from life was changing as he grew older -- these are things I could have thought. And Thompson wrote this at the age of 22.

My hat's off to you, Hunter S.

---

As a side note, it appears the film version is missing Yeamon? I assume they've melded him with another character as a composite. Perhaps Moberg, since Giovanni Ribisi is getting third billing on imdb and there really wasn't that much of Moberg in the book.