It was 1959. Fired for kicking in a candy machine at a small-town newspaper, Hunter S. Thompson fled to Puerto Rico, where his vagrant journalist lifestyle inspired his first novel, “The Rum Diary.”
Thompson's boozy year marked by cockfights, bowling alleys and pursuit of the governor’s daughter is now being made into a movie, starring Johnny Depp, who first portrayed the legendary cult writer in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”.
“I didn’t know Johnny Depp could act until he played me,” said Thompson, 66, during a telephone interview from his home in Woody Creek, Colo.
Puerto Rican native Benicio Del Toro makes his directing debut, and Nick Nolte and Josh Hartnett co-star. Shooting is scheduled to start in December.
According to Thompson, he was working at the Middletown (N.Y.) Daily Record when the candy machine cheated him of a nickel. After he smashed it and was fired, he moved to New York’s Adirondack Mountains to begin a novel, living off unemployment checks.
Then a sports editor opening at The San Juan Star grabbed his eye. Thompson was rejected by managing editor William Kennedy, who went on to win a Pulitzer in 1984 for his book “Ironweed.” But Kennedy predicted that Thompson would write “the great Puerto Rican novel.”
Journalist and male model
Thompson then covered cockfights on the outlying Puerto Rican island of Vieques for El Sportivo, which was billed as the Caribbean’s Sports Illustrated but turned out to be little more than a doomed bowling tabloid.
To supplement his income, Thompson worked as a male model for Bacardi Rum and wrote freelance articles. He lived in a wooden beach shack in Loiza, a community of mostly Yoruba slave descendants a 25-minute drive from the capital.
“It was the best house on the beach,” Thompson said. “I would take some scuba gear and pick up those big lobsters off the reef with rubber gloves. It was perfect.”
He commuted to San Juan on a motorscooter to frequent El Patio de Sam, a local watering hole still hopping in San Juan’s colonial district. For fun, he would shoot rats at the San Juan dump with a .357 Magnum.
“My only regret is that I didn’t run off with the governor’s daughter,” Thompson said, unable to remember which daughter of former Gov. Luis Munoz Marin caught his fancy. “I still have a seashell she gave me in Aruba.”
Rum and sun
The novel begins with reporter Paul Kemp on an airplane bound for Puerto Rico. He joins The San Juan Daily News — modeled after the paper that turned Thompson down — in the midst of financial problems on an island aflame in political turmoil.
Like Thompson, Kemp finds himself trying to balance his job and a cast of imported misfit colleagues with his appetite for rum and sun.
“I was writing about what it was like to be among vagrant journalists,” Thompson said, confirming that most of the book is based on reality.
“Fiction is based on reality unless you’re a fairy-tale artist,” Thompson said. “You have to get your knowledge of life from somewhere. You have to know the material you’re writing about before you alter it.”
The book was initially rejected by an agent and got buried beneath Thompson’s other projects. Resurrected 40 years later and published in 1998, it offers a glimpse into Thompson’s youth before the hallucinogenic episodes famously chronicled in “Fear and Loathing.”
It came before the spawning of Thompson’s gonzo brand of journalism where fiction is, in his words, truer than any reportage. Today Thompson, 66, has written more than 10 books, writes a column for ESPN.com and is a regular contributor to Rolling Stone.
He plans his first visit back to Puerto Rico since those halcyon days to act as consultant once shooting begins in December.
“We’re going to come down and take over the island.”