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Going Gonzo-Again

Hunter S. Thompson's The Rum Diary

It's been a long and psychotic trip for Hunter S. Thompson, the Prince of Gonzo.

Legendary, drug-addled, reclusive and prone to one-man riots, orgies of senseless violence and wanton disregard of the law, the man who invented a careening brand of journalism with his work for Rolling Stone in the late '60s is now a certified dean of American letters.

Long before Hollywood put its stamp on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson's classic first-hand account of psychic detonation and hallucinogenic bacchanalia in the dying moments of the Peacenik era far surpassed cult status. Indeed, generations of aspiring hacks and would-be renegades have lapped up Thompson's ink like reportorial absinthe, starved for the self-styled Doctor of Journalism's increasingly rare appearances in print.

Who knows how many starry-eyed young fools have gone on booze-fueled hajj to Thompson's fortified compound in Woody Creek, Colorado? The weight of such a fanatical following has clearly taken its toll on Thompson; his written output, a torrent in his Vietnam/Nixon/Youth Revolution heyday, has stalled to a trickle in recent years.

Simon & Schuster, cloth, $24

Nowadays, in lieu of fresh dispatches from Stone's blood-crusted National Desk-to say nothing of the sports coverage provided by Thompson's cracked alter ego, Raoul Duke-fans must make do with dredgings from the Thompsonian back catalogue. Last year saw The Proud Highway, first of three projected volumes of Thompson's meticulously preserved correspondence. That book, while a little padded, shines at its core with the writer's nascent mojo. Now, Simon and Schuster digs out The Rum Diary, the novel Thompson launched in his early 20s while working as a reporter for Puerto Rico's San Juan Star.

The Rum Diary, much alluded to in Proud Highway and elsewhere, was Thompson's first literary obsession; its ultimate failure and decades-long disappearance left him hungry for the free-wheeling success he first scored with Hell's Angels and later, in spades, with Fear and Loathing. Clearly, though, the Diary never left Doc Gonzo's thoughts, even as time put more distance between the man and his youthful Caribbean exploits.

The "long lost" of the novel's subtitle is a bit of a put-on, since The Rum Diary has never truly been lost. Sitting in a drawer since the Kennedy administration, maybe, but lost, no. In fact, there's been some speculation as to exactly how much late '90s "revising" the book underwent before finally seeing the light of day.

At its lowest, least adept moments, it's easy to wish this slim novel had stayed in the cupboard. Indeed, when a writer of Thompson's stature babbles on about a rookie opus for decades, one might be forgiven for expecting more than The Rum Diary delivers. But when the Thompson hits his stride in telling the tale of Paul Kemp, a San Juan reporter who's his fictive double, it's enough to rattle the Gonzo bones of any of the rebel journalist's fans.

Kemp, the anti-hero of Thompson's deranged tale of island excess, styles himself a wandering "vagabond journalist," at the end of his rope after ten years on the road. He's worked for fly-by-night papers from Europe to New York, and his escape from the Apple to San Juan represents one last stab at making it in the writing game.

Hired on by the San Juan Daily News, a flea-bag English-language operation run by a sketchy ex-Communist and staffed by the human dregs of journalism, Kemp lands in San Juan with no idea what he's getting into. In the true Thompson style, however, he quickly finds the city deep in a moral morass, overrun by crass ugly Americans, poisoned by the Spanish-speaking natives' hatred of the gringo imperialists.

In the book's finest passages, readers catch a whiff of the pungent portrayals of "fear and loathing"-nameless dread and ennui lurking beneath the American surface-that would become the trademark of Thompson's later years. At its best, the novel lays bare the feverish imagination that would one day fuel some of the hairiest excursions into the nation's dark side ever put to the page.

When The Rum Diary clunks, it clunks loud and hard. Subplots go unconsummated right and left, and only a few characters besides Kemp emerge from the second dimension into any kind of real life. The ending, a violent and crazed climax as one might expect, seems rushed and disappointingly short of the meltdown hinted at through much of the plot.

Given free reign to wander into Cap'n Morgan-soaked nether regions, Kemp and the other damaged goods at the fictional daily provide rollicking, twisted hijinks. Kemp's twisted, midnight-dark view of the humanity parading in the Carib's sweat and heat matches Thompson's own, and the book's blackest musings read like anti-travel literature, a tourist guide from another, sicker planet.

Readers who don't normally flock to the base of Thompson's rickety throne won't find much of use here. Neophytes looking for an introduction to the Gonzo legacy had best seek elsewhere, as well; Fear and Loathing, in fact, is the best place to start.

For confirmed fans, though, The Rum Diary makes a compelling tour of the primordial landscape of Hunter's brain.

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