Book of the week: The Rum Diary by Hunter S Thompson

Sometimes, I confess, I buy the paper and I forget to actually read it. It will probably be the Guardian and I’ll buy it – promising myself that I will consume it lovingly cover to cover and that it will somehow make me a better person, raising my mind from thoughts of X Factor and lasagne. Such good intentions…

The next day I will see my paper on the sideboard. I will consider reading it but by now it looks deflated – its stories less enticing. I turn on the radio – the next episode of life and death is already happening somewhere out there. What is the point of paper pulp that only screams the breaking news of yesterday? So my paper ends up discarded and my money-waster guilt lives on. 

The characters in Thompson’s novel also face the question of the precise literary value and meaning of journalism. Well, I say face. They are journalists so they encounter the problem of writing reality but never fully discuss this issue in so many words and then, in most scenes, they get really drunk and sleep with other people or each other.

But Thompson’s narrator Paul Kemp carries around The Times like ‘a precious bundle of wisdom, a weighty assurance that [you’re] not yet cut off from that part of the world that was real.’ Maybe, his character suggests, literature could learn some new tricks from the field of the hack. Get a bit more real. The alcoholic 60s cohort of ‘New Journalists’, including Thompson and his characters, try out a range of narrative and journalistic modes of writing in order to test out this theory.

Thompson, most famous for writing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, paints a pretty debauched picture of Puerto Rico, its coin slots, fiestas, hotel parties and printing houses. Paul Kemp is portrayed as painfully aware he has only one drunken mind in a thousand with which to write reality. The Rum Diary stands as a record of a journalist-persona who writes reality ‘badly’ and offers us the job of doing better.

4/5 stars

Next I’m reading…Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park

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