Just read: Hunter S. Thompson's 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' & 'The Rum Diary'

"Just read" is a blog where I blog about a book I just read. I'm trying to read more books this year and I don't wanna forget about them; blogging will probably help me remember, but who can be sure.

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Last week, I finished reading Hunter S. Thompson's The Rum Diary, which I began immediately after concluding his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. These were my first ventures into Thompson's novels; I had read a couple of his better-known articles in my final journalism course at UF, which was all about magazine feature writing. So I was aware of Gonzo journalism and his general reputation. 

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I enjoyed both books very much and I intend to read through several more of his novels in the near future. Fear and Loathing is obviously his best-known work, and certainly the more "Gonzo" of the two stories. It follows narrator Raoul Duke, a journalist who needs to head to Las Vegas to cover a story, dammit, and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo, who accompanies him with a car full of narcotics and alcohol. The story is based on autobiographical events, with Duke representing Thompson and Dr. Gonzo representing Thompson's semi-famous attorney at the time.

It would be, ah, tough to summarize the plot. Although the actual trips to Vegas and the novel-writing both occurred in 1971, Thompson frequently zooms out to describe the 1960s and its drug culture in broad and sweeping strokes. He does this successfully, with surprisingly well-rounded thoughts despite the timing of his writing. Thompson also goes on drug-fueled tangents with unsurprising regularity, and describes the use and effects of drugs vividly. In between, you get a story about two people who are completely out of their minds in Las Vegas for about a week. 

After taking about 20 or 30 pages to become accustomed to his writing style (there was a fair amount of re-reading sentences early on), it became relatively easy to follow Thompson along his strange story and the book quickly became enjoyable. Once the drugs really take hold of the novel, it can become difficult to interpret what's real or what's being imagined or hallucinated -- I imagine this will lend itself nicely to re-reads, along with Thompson's commentary on the Sixties. Here's my choice quote from this one; it's a bit long, and it's from the first or second page:

The sporting editors had given me $300 in cash, most of which was already spent on extremely dangerous drugs. The trunk of the car looked like a mobile police narcotics lab. We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers ... and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls. 
All this had been rounded up the night before, in a frenzy of high-speed driving all over Los Angeles County -- from Topanga to Watts, we picked up everything we could get our hands on. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can. The only thing that really worried me was the ether. There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge. And I knew we'd get into that rotten stuff pretty soon. Probably at the next gas station. 

Edit: After I wrote this, I read this short blog about the first line in this book. Enjoyed it.

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By direct contrast, The Rum Diary is a perfectly normal and straightforward and tame tale. It's not semi-autobiographical the way Fear and Loathing is, but Thompson's own life events do provide real-life context for the story. Thompson went to Puerto Rico to work for a sports newspaper as a young journalist, but he didn't get the job. His meeting employees of the paper helped with writing the novel. 

The main character is a journalist named Paul Kemp, who shows up in San Juan to work for an English-language newspaper that's about to be going out of business. There is a lot of drinking that happens, and not too much journalism writing; the story climaxes when Kemp attends a carnival in St. Thomas with a few friends, which...doesn't go too well. I really wonder how many gallons of rum Hunter S. Thompson drank throughout his life. This book is a much more straight-laced read, probably because Thompson wrote this in his early 20s, before firmly defining his own "Gonzo" voice. 

Even though he was quite young when he wrote it, Thompson often dwells on the ideas of growing older / settling down / staying in one place, as opposed to running across the globe getting drunk and working to pay your way to the next stopover. The concept is widely applicable, I think, to many people who are in their early-mid-late 20s, and I was pleased to read it at the age (25) that I did. 

The quote I pulled from this one is about that idea of settling down:

The thing that disturbed me most was that I really didn't want to go to South America. I didn't want to go anywhere. Yet, when Yeamon talked about moving on, I felt the excitement anyway. I could see myself getting off a boat in Martinique and ambling into town to look for a cheap hotel. I could see myself in Caracas and Bogota and Rio, wheeling and dealing through a world I had never seen but knew I could handle because I was a champ. 
But it was pure masturbation, because down in my gut I wanted nothing more than a clean bed and a bright room and something solid to call my own at least until I got tired of it. There was an awful suspicion in my mind that I'd finally gone over the hump, and the worst thing about it was that I didn't feel tragic at all, but only weary, and sort of comfortably detatched.

The Rum Diary was also turned into a movie, featuring Johnny Depp as Paul Kemp. Apparently Depp is the world's largest fan of Hunter S. Thompson; he portrayed Raoul Duke in the Fear and Loathing movie, and he found the manuscript of The Rum Diary in Thompson's papers shortly before the writer's death, which is the only reason why the book was ever published.

I watched the movie last night and it was not very good. While reading the story, I felt as though it lent itself nicely to being adapted for the screen ... but this attempt was not great. Next, I'm reading Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five.

Both Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Rum Diary are available as IRL books and e-books on Amazon. They are also both available on Audible; if you click this link, you can get a free trial of Audible that includes two free audiobooks (how perfect for this!). Even if you cancel your trial, you'll get to keep these two books. Also: clicking on any of the Amazon links in this post, and purchasing something from them, provides a small percentage kickback to the author of the blog you just read.