Sixty years ago, on June 26th, 1960, an article with an odd title appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal. “A Louisvillian in Voodoo Country” was a profile of a young man called Paul Semonin, allegedly a scion of a wealthy family who had turned his back on his ancestry in favor of a bohemian life as a painter on the island of Puerto Rico. It was also the first experiment in theme, form, and character that turned into a novel that would be published some 38 years later.

Sandwiched between advertisements for a “woman’s gentle laxative” and a “tummy control” girdle on pages 34 and 36 of the newspaper’s magazine section, the article was probably overlooked by most readers, in spite of its intriguing title, but it still managed to cause a great deal of embarrassment for its subject, the alleged beatnik painter. He had more than a few quibbles with how he had been portrayed by the reporter, his friend and fellow Louisvillian, Hunter S. Thompson.

Semonin and Thompson had grown up together in Kentucky, the painter a year older than the writer. Thompson had missed his high school graduation due to a brief stint in jail and, unable to attend university, he signed up for the Air Force and stumbled into a career as a journalist. Semonin, from a much wealthier background and lacking Thompson’s extensive criminal record, had gone to Yale. The two men lived and travelled together before, in early 1960, Hunter took off for Puerto Rico in search of adventure and journalistic success. A little later, his friend followed him and here they shared a tiny, concrete shack on a beach not far from the capital of San Juan.

In Puerto Rico, Thompson first worked for a bowling magazine called El Sportivo, but it soon went bankrupt and so he mostly did freelance journalism during the six months he lived there. After seeing his byline in the San Juan Star, the New York Herald-Tribune, the Milwaukee Journal, and the Baltimore Sun, the always-egotistical Gonzo reporter took to calling himself “the preeminent journalist” in the region. But it was the Louisville Courier-Journal, Thompson’s hometown paper, that had the privilege of running one of his more interesting articles.

Thompson’s journalism career, by this point, was just a few years old and he had spent much of that time trying to escape it and become a novelist, which he considered his true calling. As such, his reporting typically pushed towards a more novelistic recounting of events – the sort of writing that would, a few years later, receive the unfortunate appellation “New Journalism.” Thompson had studied the work of great writers but preferred those who wrote fiction, and his own language and structure moved very much in that direction. He preferred soft leads to hard, subjectivity to objectivity, and fantastic stories to the cold, dull truth.

In his article about Semonin, there was not much room for truth. When Semonin read the story that Thompson had written about him, he was shocked. This wasn’t journalism. What the hell had his friend been doing all this time? Years later, he recalled the incident:

Hunter did some interviews with me, but then when he showed me the draft of the article, every single quote from me was totally fabricated. I said, “Hunter, that’s not what I said.” But he sent it off and it was published. “Voodoo Country” is something that will grab the eye of any reader and pull him into the story, and Hunter was a master at that. That’s what purpose his exaggerations and his buffoonery served—fantastic, eye-grabbing stuff for the reader.

The reporter had – not for the first time and certainly not for the last – invented facts and quotes for the sake of a good story. As journalism, his article was a failure… but was that really what Thompson was trying to achieve with this article? In his mind, recording a quote verbatim or recounting the exact order of events was not the best method of reporting the truth. He once claimed, paraphrasing William Faulkner, that “‘the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism – and the best journalists have always known this.” Semonin was from a rich family and he was living a rustic, back-to-the-earth life in rural Puerto Rico, so, in a sense, Thompson had taken a mildly interesting truth and dressed it up to work as art by exaggerating, fabricating, or misattributing the relevant facts.  

Years later, Semonin acknowledged that the article was possibly a proto-Gonzo effort in which the lack of truth was implied without being stated, and pointed out that, going forward, Thompson’s work tended to become more “theatrical” and that he would happily invent quotes to take a story where he wanted it to go. He commented that, in his writing, Thompson “creates the drama and escalates the realm of reality. It goes back to that impulse for street theater,” referring to the outrageous and meticulously-planned pranks they played as teens back in Kentucky.  

But this wasn’t just Thompson getting his kicks from lies about a friend. Although there was some element of comedy, this was, in his mind, serious writing. A close reading of this article and also Thompson’s other work shows that he did not view “A Louisvillian in Voodoo Country” as mere reporting. He was limbering up for an attempt at a novel and the clues are there right from the first lines:

To get to Loiza Aldea, you drive on a sand road between the swamps and the sea, creeping most of the way in second gear. The drive takes almost an hour – through miles of coconut palms, around the swamps, along the dunes, and past an occasional wooden shack full of silent staring natives.

Although this is not a particularly special piece of writing, it shows that Thompson was already experimenting with the voice that he would use in The Rum Diary. He often tried out new styles or tweaked interesting phrases in his letters, but even in his articles and short stories, he was constantly innovating. When he found something that he liked, he would re-use it in a later, more important piece of work. In the book, the drive to the shack is described in very similar words:

He had given me a map to his beach house, but I was not prepared for the sand road. It looked like something hacked out of a Philippine jungle. I went the whole way in low gear, the sea on my left, a huge swamp on my right – through miles of coconut palms, past wood shacks full of silent, staring natives.

hunter s thompson article - carnival time on st. thomas

A year later, back in the United States, Thompson wrote another article for his hometown paper, this time describing a festival he had visited during his time in the Caribbean. “Carnival Time on St. Thomas” introduces its reader to the week-long party that takes place in the capital of the Virgin Islands. There is a paragraph in the article, rendered in italics, which shows that Thompson was already testing some of the language that he would use in his novel:

At 11 o’clock on Saturday morning, after spending a comfortable night on the beach, we came across a scene that was like nothing I’ve ever witnessed in my life. Several hundred people blocked Main Street. A percussion corps sat on the curbing, beating on empty crates with beer cans and champagne bottles. Men and women danced wildly in the streets, and from somewhere in the middle of the crowd came the piercing blast of a trumpet, played by a huge Negro wearing red silk pants and no shirt. Farther down the street, in a blue jeep marked “Poleece,” a gendarme in a pith helmet watched the scene impassively.

In The Rum Diary, all of this happens and even some of the language that he uses is the same, showing that he was still using his journalism as a testing ground for the novel. At one point, he writes, “A percussion corps of drunkards was beating with beer cans on empty scotch crates.” Elsewhere, he says, “We hurried off down a side street, passing a blue jeep marked ‘Poleece.’ In it, a gendarme in a pith helmet sat half asleep, idly scratching himself.”

As we have seen, journalism was not just a way for Thompson to support himself until he could write a novel… it was a way for him to develop his narrative voice. Eventually, his fiction and reporting became fused, but even when he was trying to make it as a young journalist, his writing felt more like fiction. In “A Louisvillian in Voodoo Country,” his language is literary rather than journalistic, always subtly comedic, and the dialogue is clearly invented to push Thompson’s narrative:

One night, while they sat with their beer and their coffee in the small hours of the morning, a sportswriter from Boston asked Semonin where he had gone to school.

“Yale,” said Semonin, after a moment’s hesitation.

“Oh,” said the sportswriter. “Didn’t graduate, huh?”

Semonin nodded. “Yes, graduated in ’58.”

“Good lord, man!” the sportswriter blurted. “What are you trying to prove? If I had a degree from Yale, I’d be sitting pretty right now… you better believe it!”

Thompson wants to present the story of a young rebel living on his own terms, and makes sure that every word in the article pushes towards that image. He quotes his friend as saying, “but just how important is security when you balance it against all the things you can do in the world, and all the places you can see and live?” This was surely Thompson talking, and indeed it sounds very much like an essay he wrote in high school, called “Security,” which was filled with such rhetorical questions: “is security a utopian goal or is it another word for rut? […] Where would the world be if all men had sought security and not taken risks or gambled with their lives on the chance that, if they won, life would be different and richer?”

In “A Louisvillian in Voodoo Country,” Thompson used Semonin as a surrogate. In writing about his friend, he was simply telling the world his own opinions. Many of the details about Semonin’s life are taken from Thompson’s own, such as his days living in a cabin in the woods with his pipes frozen solid, and then are fused – often comically – with exaggerated elements of Semonin’s life. He was, essentially, describing himself, and this is what he did in the novel that he began in Puerto Rico. In Thompson’s first attempt at a novel, Prince Jellyfish, he had more or less written about his own life, with a thin veil of fiction. The protagonist, Welburn Kemp, was just a slightly exaggerated (and idealized) version of the real Hunter. In The Rum Diary, however, he pushed more into the realm of fiction but still placed himself at the dead center of the book in the form of Paul Kemp, a luckless journalist in San Juan.

His model for The Rum Diary was Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises. As Thompson noted countless times in letters and interviews, Hemingway had been a journalist and made the leap to fiction. For Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises was an important breakthrough, when he realized that he could use his journalism experience to create the plot and characters of a viable novel. He decided to use real people and real events but impose some elements of fiction upon it. His biographer, Jeffrey Meyers, claimed that “What he made up was truer than what he remembered.” This was also the guiding philosophy of Thompson’s literary career.

Interestingly, the novel’s second most important character, Yeamon, also appears to be a version of Hunter… as does another character, called Moberg… and there are elements of Hunter even in Sala, another man working at the novel’s fictional newspaper. Whether deliberately or accidentally, Thompson inserted elements of his own personality into each of these men, but it is only Yeamon where it is unclear how much was really fictionalized. He is – like Thompson – a tall, fiercely individual, hard-drinking Kentuckian, considered a bit of a loose cannon by his colleagues, who contemplates travelling to Europe, writes articles that Thompson wanted to – and, later, did – write, and he makes a bizarre threat that Thompson occasionally threw into his work: to “twist” someone’s head. It is Yeamon who lives on the beach in a shack much like Thompson’s, with Chenault, a woman that sounds an awful lot like Hunter’s girlfriend, Sandy. It is also Yeamon who provokes the fight and arrest that mark the turning point in the story, yet in real life it was Thompson who insisted upon running out on a restaurant bill and getting himself and his friends beaten and jailed.

Perhaps Yeamon was his first “persona” – a proto-Raoul Duke, capable of doing and saying things that Thompson would not willingly attribute to himself, like slapping his girlfriend. However, other aspects of the character also seem to be based around Semonin. In the Courier-Journal, Thompson describes him spear-fishing for lobster off the beach outside their shack and zipping around the island on his motor scooter, just like Yeamon does in the novel. To further confuse matters, there appear to be elements of Semonin in Kemp, including his first name and Yale background.[1]

This confusion of characters is an issue that continues throughout most of Thompson’s attempts at fiction. Sometimes it is clearly deliberate, such as Raoul Duke talking about Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (which was credited to Duke when published in Rolling Stone), but in weaker efforts like The Curse of Lono there are characters who swap personalities and clothes and even just disappear without explanation. Thompson was never able to write believable characters. He could not create unique voices, remember backstories, or handle character development, but he did excel at capturing real people like the Hell’s Angels and Oscar Zeta Acosta. The Rum Diary suffers a little from this, but in the early sixties Thompson put an immense amount of time and effort into his novels and this one is stronger than any of his other published works of fiction.

hunter thompson quote about the rum diary
Hunter Thompson at Big Sur, where he wrote much of his novel.

Thompson worked on what he called “the Great Puerto Rican Novel” while living on the island but most of the writing was done later, in various places, including Big Sur. Although he later became famous for supposedly spontaneous journalism that underwent only minor editing, his early fiction went through multiple, substantial drafts. The Rum Diary was repeatedly altered, with subsequent re-writes adding layers of aggression as the events of the sixties provoked in him a sense of anger – particularly the assassination of John F. Kennedy and, later, his brother, whom Hunter admired.

Still, despite his efforts, The Rum Diary went unsold for several years and was only picked up by a major publishing company as part of a package deal after the success of his first book, Hell’s Angels. With this landmark publication, which furthered his efforts at writing journalism in a novelistic mode, Thompson became a minor literary celebrity and suddenly his novel was a desirable property. But no matter how poverty-stricken he become (and he usually was in dire straits), he was reluctant to allow it to actually be published because he did not feel it was as good as it could be.

For a decade, Thompson kept tinkering with his book, flitting back and forth between confidence in its quality and embarrassment at its weaknesses. In 1969, an article he wrote for Pageant included a short author’s biography that announced The Rum Diary as his next book, but instead it fell by the wayside as he soon stumbled upon Gonzo – a one-man literary genre that both ensured his place in literary history and also condemned him to become trapped in a form that quickly grew stale.

Over the years, he considered re-writing his novel, recognizing that it told a good story and had potential, but he did not feel he could step back into that character or that world. It would be, he said, like “giving it to a ghost-writer.” By the seventies and eighties, his life was so far removed from those younger years that he could not get into the right mood to write it again. He often struggled for motivation to write, and his best work was typically begun on the scene and then finished shortly after, with visual, audio, and/or chemical stimuli to put him back into the same frame of mind.

In 1990, Thompson chose to include excerpts from The Rum Diary in his collected, Songs of the Doomed, and in 1998 the novel was finally published, albeit with two thirds of the original material cut. Notably, all but two of the racial slurs in the original manuscript were edited out between 1990 and 1998, though it was otherwise only minor changes that were made to the sections included in the Songs of the Doomed excerpts. The book was a hit with his legions of fans, many of whom were not yet born when Thompson was at his peak.

Six years after his 2005 death, Thompson’s novel was adapted into a poorly-received movie starring his friend, Johnny Depp, who had also played Hunter in the movie adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. More than the other flaws in the film, fans were baffled by the omission of Yeamon – perhaps the book’s most important character, after Paul Kemp. Yeamon had been, in a sense, the book’s Dean Moriarty… even its Jay Gatsby. He had provoked most of the action and Kemp had been a participant in what unfolded.

Flawed, contemptible, and self-destructive, Yeamon was one of the best characters in Thompson’s oeuvre – entertaining but believable, while at the same time functioning well as a literary device, allowing Thompson to explore the numerous themes of his perhaps overly-ambitious novel. He is an anti-hero, shrouded in various mysteries, with a bad temper. He was part Thompson and part Semonin, just like the beatnik painter Thompson wrote about in 1960, deliberately blurring the lines between fact and fiction, and indeed between the characters themselves. Looking back to the June 26th article in the Louisville Courier-Journal, published sixty years ago today, one wonders if perhaps Thompson was already plotting his “Great Puerto Rican Novel” and if perhaps Semonin was intended to play a greater part.

Further reading: Read High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism if you want to learn all about Thompson’s development as a writer. For a look at how he created his most famous passage, “the wave speech,” read here. You may also be interested in a discussion of Thompson’s alleged daily routine.

[1] Paul Kemp claims to have graduated from Yale but confides in the reader that this is a lie. Welburn Kemp, the protagonist of Prince Jellyfish, made the same claim.