I read Hunter S. Thompson's THE RUM DIARY this past weekend, fulfilling a wish from last summer when Johnny Depp's protrayal briefly splashed across the newspaper entertainment section. My teenage son and I have been dying to pick up the DVD and I refused until I'd read the book. Teenagers having less patience, he gave it to me as a Christmas gift.
THE RUM DIARY traces the evaporation of hope experienced by thirty-year-old journalist Paul Kemp, as voiced by Hunter writing in his early twenties. It's easy to see why it wasn't published until Hunter had earned his audience with his underbelly oeuvre. It's hard to find a page where a cigarette isn't lit or an ice cube rattled. Apart from a handful of scenes, there's not so much dramatic tension as a crescendo of despair. A foggy sense of impending doom that regularly dissipates like one more grease-fed hangover.
But it's the voice that captured me from page one.
Hunter drafted it as a young man for whom thirty represents the "hump" after which bleakness reigns. It's as if the salesmen from David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross were dumped into a 50s era San Juan newspaper. Life is done, cynicism is a religion, and the only way out is down.
What Hunter did was project middle-aged angst onto thirty-year-old men because from the perspective of a twenty-two-year-old, that made sense. Here he is musing about Yeamon, a character five or six years younger, who still dreams of success:
"This is what I told myself on those hot afternoons in San Juan when I was thirty years old and my shirt stuck damply to my back and I felt myself on that big and lonely hump, with my hardnose years behind me and all the rest downhill. They were eerie days, and my fatalistic view of Yeamon was not so much conviction as necessity, because if I granted him even the slightest optimism I would have to admit a lot of unhappy things about myself."
For me, more often than not voicing twenty-two-year-old characters through a rear view mirror, it was interesting to see Hunter hit some notes perfectly and then play others sharp, missing a beat. It's like when I forget that the language of a young adult in the 80s needs a lift to ring true today.
It will be even more interesting to see how my teenage son, whose name is the Germanic form of Hunter, reads a couple hundred pages of debauchery. And whether THE RUM DIARY's existentialist musings connect to a boy for whom adulthood is just coming into focus.