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‘The Rum Diary’: A Hunter Thompson tale of rage and helplessness

There should probably be a list of bad influences on budding writers. The sorts of writing that people who are just learning their craft might do well to steer the hell clear of, because they exert undue influence, and it’s a bad so

Johnny Depp in Hunter S. Thompson's "The Rum Diary"
Courtesy of FilmDistrict
Johnny Depp in Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Rum Diary”

There should probably be a list of bad influences on budding writers. The sorts of writing that people who are just learning their craft might do well to steer the hell clear of, because they exert undue influence, and it’s a bad sort of influence. Jack Kerouac, for instance, although I never know how persuasive he is anymore, culturally speaking. But there was a while, when I was a boy, when all  up-and-coming novelists found their way to the Beats, and to Kerouac, and suddenly wrote grossly oversized sentences mad with jazz rhythms, mad with a rush of amphetamine style, mad with a desire to burn, man, burn. This tended not to be good writing.

And God help us when aspiring music writers discover Lester Bangs. Suddenly they all have license to make themselves the subject of their stories — in particular, their idiosyncratic rock and roll philosophies. Worse still, Bangs had a belligerent style of interviewing people, one that he insisted was meant to deflate pretension, but one that I think was a neurotic tic. You still see it in writers who interview celebrities. It’s a puzzling mix of attraction to fame and jealousy of it that causes certain writers to gravitate toward celebrity journalism, but then misbehave toward the celebrities they are interviewing, as though a well-placed insult during an interview levels the playing field.

Kerouac and Bangs were terrific, mind you. But there are some writers it is useful to imitate, and some whom you should never imitate. And perhaps the king of that latter category was Hunter S. Thompson. If you’re an editor and you have a writer who displays even a whiff of Thompson influence, fire that writer on the spot. Nothing good will come of it.

Thompson was sui generis, and deserves to remain that way. Any journalist might benefit from exploring Truman Capote’s and Tom Wolfe’s experiments in writing news using the techniques of ficiton. But Thompson? His writing inhabited a middle world, a strange, ever-shifting convergence between fact, political satire, tall tales, and personal myth building. His work has made it to the screen twice before this year, once with Bill Murray offering up a convincing Thompson impression in an otherwise uncertain film called “Where the Buffalo Roam,” and once with Johnny Depp as Thompson in a suitably nightmarish take on the author’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

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Now we have “The Rum Diary,” based on one of Thomspon’s few true novels, inspired by the writer’s own experiences as a sort of hanger-on at the San Juan Star in Puerto Rico in the late ’50s. Thompson was very young when he had the experiences — in his early 20s — and he was only a few years older when he first wrote the novel, which languished for decades before finding a publisher in 1998. The film again stars Depp, who developed a friendship with Thompson and, in fact, paid for the man’s funeral. It’s an odd sort of casting, as Depp is twice the age Thompson was when the story was written. But, then, it’s an odd sort of novel, as Thompson was unexpectedly obsessed with ideas that seem more appropriate to an older man, particular a concern about aging and going over the hill.

The story, in brief, is about a new reporter at a failing Caribbean newspaper whose job gives him both an insider’s view of a sort of modern colonial corruption and denies him the opportunity to expose it. But, because this is a Thompson piece, even if one written when he was very young, it’s mostly about the lunatics who run the paper, and it’s about the consumption of chemicals. Later, Thompson would be a great chronicler and mythologizer of debauchery; he didn’t quite have those skills yet, although the film gives us a few entertaining drunks and one glorious reprobate in the form a character named Moberg. He is played by Giovanni Ribisi, whose commitment to the character is so absolute that I worry for both the actor’s health and sanity. Moberg is a decrepit, arch skeleton in an oversized coat, endlessly sucking at cigarettes through gnarled fingers while firing off hoarse insults with the sort of literary skill that most people don’t possess when speaking, except, perhaps, for David Carr. One gets the terrible sense, in seeing the film, that Moberg is a character that Thompson aspired to be.

He’s not there yet in this film. As played by Depp, he’s a bit of a cipher — a sardonic fellow with a trumped up résumé, a burgeoning drinking problem, and almost no scruples to speak of. His only real ambition seems to be to sleep with the girlfriend of a corrupt industrialist, and otherwise he just sort of malingers around the island, drinking little plastic bottles of rum, attending cockfights, and, at one moment, having an LSD trip that seems hampered by the film’s budget — there is a brief and unconvincing moment of computer animation, and then he talks to some lobsters in a tank for a few minutes.

Nonetheless, there is something about all this that is irritating to Depp’s character. He has a nascent social conscience, and can’t help but see the human wreckage around him. And yet this is a film that is mostly about helplessness — his newspaper is part of the corruption, and is in no position to be part of the solution. As a result, the film ends in a way that is so ambiguous and unsatisfying that the filmmakers felt the need to throw some last-minute titles on the screen explaining that after the film ended, good things happened.

This is an odd time for Thompson, and an odd time for “The Rum Diary.” He was a cynic, thoroughly disgusted by American politics, and you would think that now, more than ever, this sort of viewpoint would be welcome. He celebrated dreamers and rebels, and we’re in a time of both. But he also saw them as tilting at windmills, and so, rather than offer hope for their success, Thompson instead documented their rage, and the chemicals they used to escape that rage, or to give it a mad edge. I am not sure we’re in a time now where we want to hear the message that this film sends — that the best we can hope for is the chance to speak our minds, knowing it will be ignored, and knowing that the machine of corruption will roll on past us, ignoring our rage.

This may be another reason Thompson is somebody aspiring writers might do well to avoid imitating. Because he used the tools of fiction and satire to communicate the truth, as he saw it.

There are times when nobody wants to hear the truth.