Ink and rage: ‘The Rum Diary’ and finding one’s voice as a writer
Hunter S. Thompson’s second book, The Rum Diary, remained unpublished for most of his lifetime. But more than half a century after it was written, the novel was adapted into a film starring his long-time friend Johnny Depp, who portrayed its protagonist and Thompson’s literary alter-ego, Paul Kemp.
The film adaptation was a poetic triumph for the late Thompson, who wrote the book as a struggling 22-year-old writer. But it’s also a valuable asset to its audience, particularly to writers, because it represents a cinematic expression of Thompson’s great insight: that finding one’s voice is a matter of identifying an antagonist, against which the writer deploys all his passions.
An assignment in San Juan
Kemp arrives in Puerto Rico to write for a failing newspaper, The San Juan Star, hoping to earn some money after writing two unpublished novels. Only a few days in, he’s approached by a wealthy land developer, who wants him to write articles in favor of a planned acquisition. The purchase, Kemp realizes, amounts to real estate fraud, and his conscience wrestles with the decision as he enjoys the ornaments of his potential business partner’s lavish lifestyle: cash, fast cars, and a beautiful woman.
Kemp breaks a confidentially agreement, causing the land developer to rescind his offer. By any measure, this is a catastrophe: the struggling writer has lost a major connection and source of income. Even worse, The San Juan Starshuts down. But after a psychedelically conjured up conversation with a lobster evokes in Kemp a profound realization, he decides to write about the acquisition and publish the article on one last self-published edition of The Star.
At a cockfighting match, a rooster — rendered unbeatable by a witch-doctor’s spell — earns Kemp the necessary funds to set his plan in motion. But arriving at the printing press, he finds that the machinery has been removed. He sets off by sailboat intended for New York, where, as a series of end titles somewhat anticlimactically reveal to us, he publishes the article to widespread acclaim.
What caused this struggling writer, who had previously resorted to faking references, to make it big with a single article? We might say: the necessities of a compelling narrative. But The Rum Diary teaches us that Paul Kemp’s success could only come after he found his voice: specifically, a voice that spoke out against injustice.
Truth to power
Kemp had twice been denied an opportunity to write about what he perceived as societal problems in his newfound island residence. First, his editor at The San Juan Star discouraged his cynical tone when he reported on a recently-opened bowling alley, a favorite destination for gluttonous tourists. Later, the editor is dismissive when Kemp tries to write a story about wealth disparity, leaving him only with the gloomy assessment: “Five years ago, I might have said go after it. Now I say, go with it. There’s nothing you can change.”
From these instances we can see that Kemp, despite his previous failures as an author, has the necessary quality of a journalist: willingness to speak truth to power. He’s deeply uncomfortable with conforming to the ills of society, or to use his editors words, going with them. So after reflecting on the land acquisition deal, Kemp decides to write an expose about it.
Of course, his editor refuses to publish the story in the Star. But Kemp remains determined, and resolves to put in motion his ill-fated plan of publishing an edition himself. From where does Kemp get this determination? He spells it out in the story itself:
“I wanna make a promise to you, the reader. And I don’t know if I can fulfill it tomorrow, or the day after that. But I put the bastards of the world at notice: that I do not have their best interests at heart. I will try to speak for my reader. That is my promise. And it will be a voice made of ink and rage.
This is the attitude which compels Kemp into the drama that comprises the last quarter of the film, and which, although ultimately unsuccessful, is the prelude to his success as a journalist. Ink and rage: that is the combination, the switch which had to be flipped, in order to shake Kemp from his unremarkable job as a horoscope-writer at the Star to a respectable journalist.
Reading Kemp as Thompson’s alter-ego, what can we learn about the author’s own experience? No doubt, that he also felt an intense desire to speak truthfully against the so-called “bastards of the world”, and that this was the source of his prolific output. The Rum Diary, then — at least the film adaptation — outlines the realization that propelled Thompson into finding his own voice and coming into his own.
His advice to fledgling writers? Find the bastards of the world, those to whom the truth is a dangerous thing, and rail against them with ink and rage.