Monday, January 4, 2010

Reading Rainbow: The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson

It occurs to me that I have my work cut out for me if I am to catch up on this blog. I've done a fair amount of reading, some TV to write about, and some movies that I've seen, and there hasn't been an installment of Rediscovering the Past in quite some time, so be expecting one of those. So despite the less than timeliness of this post, as the book is ancient and I finished it about a month ago now, I'm going to jump right in and give a quick reflection on the reading experience that was The Rum Diary.

This was the first time that I've actually ventured into the works of Hunter S. Thompson. I was immediately taken by how immensely readable it was. I had the misguided preconception that it would have been more difficult as a result of his historic substance [ab]use. Concerns were quickly alleviated, and following Thompson's presumed alter-ego to San Juan, Puerto Rico, proved to be an interesting ride.

Despite The Rum Diary having been the first novel Thompson wrote (it was mostly written in 1959 but not published until 1998), it dealt heavily in lamentations on aging and yearning for another man's woman. What really made this novel, though, was the colorful cast of supporting characters in a Puerto Rico that was as much a new frontier for Americans as anything else.

Knowing that a film adaptation was being made, it was hard not to insert Johnny Depp and Amber Heard into the roles of Paul Kemp and Chenault, respectively, because they were the two casting decisions I remembered having read about. I suppose this could have been worse*, but it is a little odd for me as a reader, as it is not often that I read stuff that has been adapted**. It is also somewhat baffling that the newspaper angle has been dropped altogether, and the volatile but vital character of Fritz Yeamon is said to have had his character doled out to other characters.

*I think my appreciation for Amber Heard has to be on the record somewhere...

** The early books in the Dennis Lehane Kenzie/Gennaro series are the only loose exception I can think of immediately.

Back to the book, though, Thompson pens a novel in which the protagonist sits back watching those around him act erratically. Paul Kemp, while self-serving to be sure, more often than not finds himself beholden to morality. While he pines for Chenault, he does not act upon these desires until she has left the drunken abuser, Yeamon. And while he drinks a lot, everyone at the paper drinks incessantly, so he doesn't come across as being particularly debaucherous.

In Kemp, he imbued the novel with a relatable protagonist. As far as initial forays into the Hunter S. Thompson catalog are concerned, this one went off without a hitch. It would seem that it was penned before Thompson embraced what I imagine his gonzo style to incorporate. It is rum soaked to be sure, but the other substances for which he was to be known to use seem all but absent here. The prose suffers no lack of clarity for it, and combined with the book's length (a scant 200-ish pages) makes for a readable, episodic novel that does not show the inexperience of the author. Perhaps most importantly, I can certainly say it likely will not be the last time I read him, so it is a recommendation in that regard.

I can say that despite the reports of rampant Heard nudity, I am very worried about the upcoming adaptation, which seems to have made a lot of changes to the novel--something that seems wholly unnecessary. The novel is very good and had more than enough story to adapt into a nice little island film.

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