“Did Pilar already have her name? One pictures---I do, anyway---a hunter seated by a campfire in a canvas-backed chair, a million stars out, wide-brimmed Stetson safari hat pushed back, bush trousers hiked up, sleeves of his sweat-soaked shirt rolled past his thick forearms. The fire gives his unshaven face a kind of orangy glow. His wife is sleeping under mosquito netting on a canvas cot a few feet away. He sips tin cups of whiskey and soda. Earlier, he’d dined on roast guinea hen. He’s not bent on dominating man or animal. Somewhere in his mind is the greater kudu he might get to steal up on tomorrow at the salt lick. With his weak eyesight, the big-game hunter, who is even more of a big-game fisherman, is poring over fine print in a well-thumbed catalog for a twin-engine cabin cruiser, thirty-eight feet in length, offered by a manufacturer in Brooklyn. He’s studying all the specs, calculating the various price arrangements. ‘If you are looking for a fine roomy cruiser with lots of comforts, and ability for long offshore cruising and fishing trips, we suggest you look this boat over very carefully.’ In the price column: ‘Afloat at the plant. For rail or steamer deliveries add $175 for cradle and cover.’”---from Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost by Paul Hendrickson.
Writers are lousy physical specimens. Why wouldn't they be? They sit at their desks all day, right? But what if they're lousy physical specimens to begin with? What if the reason they're able to be writers is that they have bodies that permit them to sit still at their desks all day? Bodies that don't mind being ignored for hours on end? If they'd been born into bodies that demanded attention, that needed to be put to hard work or vigorous play they probably wouldn't have become writers.
Bodies that define themselves to themselves by their inadequacies---low muscle tone, little upper body strength, poor hand-eye coordination, poor gross motor skills, weak eyes, wobbly knees---might ask to be left alone to sit still at a desk rather than be hauled out into the world to embarrass themselves and the egos they carry around with them by proving their incompetence at sports and manual labor or any art or trade that requires dexterity, strength, and endurance.
But if you lived in a body that was good at doing things, it and, you would expect, you would be happier when you let it spend time and energy doing those things.
A body that was competent, that was strong, that was full of energy, that body would demand attention. That body would need to be in motion. It would need to be put to hard work and hard play. It would put itself to work. It would refuse to sit still. That body would be constantly trying to drag the brain inside it up out of a chair and away from a desk even if the brain was a writer's brain insisting on staying put to write. That brain would need to exert its will to hold the body down and make its restless hands bore themselves at the repetitive and unchallenging task of pushing a pen or tapping a keyboard. And because the strongest will is only so strong, the body is going to keep getting away from the brain and escaping the desk. The brain's best strategy, then, might be to let the body run wild and exhaust itself so that it will need to collapse into a chair to rest and recoup at which point the brain can take over and get down to writing.
This presents new problems. An exhausted body usually contains and an exhausted brain. It's hard to write when you have to fight to keep your eyes open and your mind is too tired to focus.
A strong, dexterous, competent body full of energy and ambitious for motion and challenge could be a writer’s worst enemy.
This isn’t a theory I’m prepared to defend. It’s just something I got to wondering about as I was reading Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson.
The boat is Pilar, a thirty-eight foot cabin cruiser Ernest Hemingway bought in 1934 for deep-sea fishing in the Caribbean and sailed out of first Key West and then Havana for the next twenty-seven years. Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost is an unconventional biography that has us seeing Hemingway's life from the deck of Pilar. Hendrickson presents Pilar---always referred to by her proper name without a thing-defining “the” in front, as if she is a she---as practically a place in itself, as central to Hemingway's life, psyche, and writing as London was for Dickens and Oxford, Mississippi was for William Faulkner. Whatever Hendrickson doesn't see as directly relating to Hemingway's time aboard Pilar he gives short shrift or even leaves out.
Places and events that take up chapters in other books and that have even been the subjects of whole books of their own are cursorily referenced, dealt with in a few paragraphs or sentences here and there or, as I said, not dealt with at all. Sometimes it seems as if World War I, Paris, the Spanish Civil War, the hunting trips to Africa, the affair and marriage with Martha Gellhorn, and the writing of the books associated with them, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell To Arms, and For Whom the Bell Tolls might as well have never happened. The writing of those books, three of his four best books, the fourth being In Our Time, are not part of this story because he wrote them before he bought Pilar or far away from her. (In Our Time gets some attention because of the fishing connections.) His only great literary achievement in the present of the book is the short story The Snows of Kilimanjaro. The Old Man and The Sea is dealt with as a piece broken off from a planned trilogy Hemingway struggled to write and could never finish and so seems like a lucky accident. It could have gone into the vault with the many over-worked pages that were cut and pasted after his death into True At First Light and Garden of Eden and come out like them, unintentional parody. Hendrickson’s Hemingway has no middle age. When the book begins, he's entering his prime on Pilar, fishing out of Key West and then, in the turn of a page, he's an old man on Pilar, fishing out of Havana. As a writer, we meet him flush with success but really spinning his wheels four years after publishing A Farewell to Arms, watch him churn out The Snows of Kilimanjaro, take a quick glance over his shoulder at To Have and Have Not, leave him fuming over the reviews of his weakest book to date, Green Hills of Africa, and then pick him up over a decade later as he's finishing the worst book he'd ever write, Across The River And Into The Trees.
People who loom large in other biographies make appearances but usually only when it's connected to the boat. Maxwell Perkins when Hemingway writes to him from Pilar or wherever she's docked, Scott Fitzgerald the same, John Dos Passos and Archibald MacLeish when they sail with Hemingway on Pilar. Martha Gellhorn breezes in and out only to pick out the house in Havana she and Hemingway will move into (but actually spend relatively little time in together) after he leaves his wife Pauline for her and moves Pilar from Key West to her new and final home in Havana Harbor.
Three men, two of whom I'd never heard of and I thought I was pretty well up on my Hemingway lore, have large sections of the book given over to their stories because Hendrickson sees the courses of their lives as defined by the (relatively short) times they spent aboard Pilar when they were young, and the narrative backs away from Hemingway himself for long stretches to see him not as the hero of his own legend but as the antagonist in these three other men's sad biographies.
Antagonist is probably the wrong word.
What is Ahab to Ishmael?
The narrative jumps around in time and it gets personal---Hendrickson doesn't just let himself be seen as the teller of this story, he enters the story, showing himself at work tracking down the story he's telling. Sometimes he's thwarted in his research by gaps in the records, often by Ernest Hemingway himself about whom many lies have been told, Hemingway being the biggest and most prolific liar about Hemingway. And at those points, where it would seem Hendrickson has nowhere to go, rather than throwing up his hands and turning back to pursue another path, Hendrickson will openly guess!
In words to this effect he'll admit to it right there: Here's what I think might have been going on. Here's what I think this person or that might have been feeling.
And he avoids all the usual psychoanalytic tropes or, more precisely, he folds them into what I admit I'm guessing is a trope of his own devising.
Instead of presenting Hemingway as a writing man or a drinking man or a woman-hating womanizing man or a posturing, unhappy, self-hating man who made vices of all his virtues---and he was all those kinds of man---Hendrickson would have us see him as an embodied man, big, strong, energetic (to put it mildly), full of physical intelligence, that is, smart in all his nerves and muscles like an athlete or a craftsman (or a hunter or a fisherman) who chose a career that required him to sit still and use only the smarts in his head.
Ernest Hemingway liked to talk about writing as if it was an athletic act. He bragged about what it took out of him physically as well as psychically. He spoke of memory as if it was a muscle he was working to exhaustion.
It’s rare when he writes about his writing that he reports an aesthetic success. He doesn’t often say things like "I wrote a nice line today." "I got a description perfect." "I like this character." "I had fun with this scene." "I made myself laugh/cry/scream with rage/shout with joy..." It's all counting. Word counts. Page counts. Hours spent working. Joggers aren't as obsessively proud of how completely they wring themselves out.
It used to be fashionable to see this as compensation. Tough talk from a macho bully boy afraid he's taken up a sissy's occupation. Maybe. Maybe that's part of it. But it seems physiological as much as psychological. It's how his body functioned. He could not be at rest. He suffered chronic insomnia from living in a machine that wouldn't shut down. If he'd been built differently and been born into a different era maybe he would have been a runner. Instead he fished.
Mainly for marlin.
When the fish jumped, he “shot upward, stiff as a ramrod, blue on top and silver below, the two colors divided sharply by a line down his body,” Samuelson wrote. The fish came down on its tail and shop up again. It seemed to hang there, a blue vision against a blue horizon with the blue water below.
Sometimes for tuna.
He was fishing with the 14/0 Vom Hofe. The bait itself---a baby tuna---weighed almost eight pounds. His boat was heeling into a southwest breeze, when he saw “a big yellowish brown fish pass alongside the boat travelling with the swells.” He thought it was a marlin. The fish hit the bait and the reel began “to scream in the special high register a man attains when he is dying of lockjaw.” The rod broke off at the tip. The fish was still on the line; they managed to get another rod tip in its place. He worked the fish to the side of the boat. The sun was blinding his vision. It’s a mako shark, he thought. Before they could get the gaff in, the fish pulled the leader free and sounded. In fifteen minutes Hemingway had the fish back up at the surface, belly side up. He saw now it was neither a mako nor a marlin but a tuna, with “a head that seemed made of chromium, a dark blue back, silver sides, was streamlined like a bullet and there were little bright yellow finlets that ran from his anal fin to his tail and still quivered when we got him in the boat.”
It's not exactly a thesis of the book. More of a controlling idea. Aboard Pilar, Hemingway found a degree of contentment he could find almost nowhere else. He wasn't necessarily happiest when he was out at sea in command of his boat or of a fish, but he could expect moments, hours, whole days of bliss. He could relax into himself. The physical intelligence that made him restless and at odds with himself ashore because it didn't have enough outlets, could express itself wholly, sustainedly, and exhaustively on the bridge of Pilar or at the stern with both feet planted on the deck, fishing rod in his hands, a huge, thrashing, angry fish on the end of his line.
The boat and the fishing may have been worse for him as a writer than the drinking because they made his body happy or made him happy in his body and therefore he was too easily lured away from writing.
But life aboard Pilar gave him material to write about. At the end of a grueling and eventful day he could sit down at the typewriter he kept below deck and work at being the kind of writer he might have been happiest being, a journalist and sportswriter and nature writer. Hendrickson quotes enough from the magazine articles that did grow out of Hemingway's adventures and triumphs and mishaps on Pilar---Hemingway once accidentally shot himself in both legs when the pistol bullet he was trying to put into the brain of a hooked shark that wouldn't give up the fight and let itself be gaffed and hauled on board ricocheted off Pilar’s brass rail.---that it makes me wish Hemingway had written at least one whole book of non-fiction about deep sea fishing, although I'm assuming he'd have resisted the temptations to bombast and grandiosity that make his bullfighting books such turgid reading. What's here is lively, informative, fun, and funny.
But because he could be happy on his boat doesn't mean he was. He was still himself, even if he was more at ease within his skin. Hemingway had a habit of trying to control the people around him. On shore that made him a bully. On Pilar he could bully benignly. Ordering friends, family, and guests about, he was just being skipper. But he never knew when to stop. Terrible fights broke out. Scenes fraught with humiliation and embarrassment were routine. Pauline Hemingway appears to have avoided trips on Pilar as often as possible. Maybe she was prone to sea sickness or didn't like to fish. But it seems likely she knew there'd be trouble, that her husband would make trouble. And maybe she never felt truly welcome. If Martha Gellhorn broke up the marriage, Pilar may have already caused an estrangement. Hemingway's friendships with Dos Passos and MacLeish were permanently damaged. All three of his sons suffered one way or another from having him for a father, but it was his youngest son Gregory who, according to Hendrickson going by Gregory's own memoirs, had his life most shaped and misshapen by what father and son shared on Pilar.
Hemingway was a divided character. Jekyll and Hyde divided. He could convince himself his outbursts of nastiness and meanness and acts of malice and spite were acts of virtue, forms of kindness, charitable even. He was being honest, telling truths people needed to hear, and he expected them to thank him for it or when he saw that they weren't likely to he was quick to point out that that was a sign of their bad or weak or vicious character. And he didn’t do it with tact. As Hendrickson says, he could be “so very wicked with words.”
Norman Mailer wrote a preface to Gregory Hemingway's memoir, Papa. In it he praised the son's book by saying that for once you could read about the father "and not have to decide whether you like him or not." This is true of Hemingway's Boat. You don't have to decide if you like him. You don't have to like him, which is good because often it's impossible. But just as often it's hard not to, as when he writes a letter of encouragement to a friend's young son who is in the hospital being treated for the illness that will soon take his life while he himself is in another hospital where he is essentially dying from the breakdowns, mental and physical, that are about to drive him into a hall closet at home with a shotgun or when, in better days, he puts a knife between his teeth and dives into the water of a lagoon to put himself between a young friend, his secretary who was an object of his desire despite her being married to a man who was also a friend, and a circling shark, a corny, self-dramatizing, but still heroic gesture that thrilled the young woman and left her husband smitten in his own way and eternally grateful. So you can see how other people could have liked him. You can see how you might have liked him if you usually caught him on his better days and never on his worst. But he was too often at his worst and any book that covers more than a year---a year? A month.---of his life is going to fill up with nastiness, malice, and petty meannesses.
He was probably bipolar, as was likely his father, and as happened to his father, it got worse as he got older. Ed Hemingway took out his rages on his children. Ernest took them out on his friends and his wives. The father reached for the strap. The son was able to stop with words. The doctor became less and less able to hold himself together. The writer was able to keep himself and his demons in check by writing and fishing. Both men eventually fell apart and killed themselves. Ed Hemingway was dead at fifty-seven. Ernest Hemingway held himself together a few years longer, putting the shotgun to his forehead when he was approaching sixty-two. But it's that holding of self together, the discipline and determination that required, that Hendrickson finds admirable, even heroic, and the pain, psychic and physical---Hemingway was a wreck by the end of World War II---that he means us to sympathize with.
As I said, the idea that Hemingway's Boat is a portrait of the writer as a physical specimen is more something I read into it than it is Hendrickson's explicit thesis. But Hendrickson is explicit in chronicling the breakdown of Hemingway's body and the deleterious effects on the man's mind and spirit and ability to write, and he is horrifically graphic when it comes time to tell the story of the suicide.
Hendrickson is the author of Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy, which won the National Book Critics Circle award for general non-fiction a few years ago, and The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War, which is one of my favorite books about the war in Vietnam. Both books are works of journalism more than standard histories and Hemingway’s Boat is very much more a work of first-person journalism than it is a standard biography. It’s a meticulously crafted, beautifully written, often thrilling, often heartbreaking and ultimately sad tale of a terribly flawed man who set out to live a heroic life. It’s the kind of book that gets called novelistic and, in fact, in a significant way borders on becoming a novel, not in being fictitious, but in being stylistically, strategically, determinedly, and insistently a told story with the storyteller himself as a character in his own tale.
This is important. Hemingway's Boat is a told book. Again, as I mentioned, when stumped by a gap in the record, Hendrickson doesn't give up and move on to another subject. He fills in the gap with a guess or a series of guesses all drawn from what he knows based on the facts he has on hand but still acts of imagination, which is to say, he makes things up. About what real person a character is based on. About what someone "must have" felt, must have thought, must have done. About what was said in conversations no one recorded or in letters that have been lost. He’s honest about what he’s up to. For example, this is how Hendrickson gets Hemingway to the boatyard where he will plunk down the dough to buy the boat he will christen Pilar:
I have no proof that the boat-owner-to-be, with Gingrich’s wad in his pocket, took the elevator (or maybe the stairs) from Max Perkins’ fifth-floor office down to the street and grabbed the first taxi he saw. Maybe he went to his hotel and changed into different clothes. Maybe he went straight to his bank and deposited the check. Maybe he and Pauline, feeling flush, had an expensive lunch on Esquire. But what I picture (guided by the maps and hunches of the reference assistants at the Brooklyn Public Library) is that some soon-after point a cabbie conveyed husband and wife over the Manhattan Bridge, got onto Flatbush Avenue, negotiated around Prospect Park, connected to Ocean Parkway, and then followed that down through the spine of the borough before turning back west and taking several side streets over to Cropsey and then to Cropsey’s foot.
This isn’t a case of the author making it easier on himself by What if-ing? Hendrickson uses his speculations to highlight, frame, and set off what is known to have been done, said, thought, felt or at least what the people there said was done, said, felt, thought. But it does call attention to Hemingway’s Boat as a written book as opposed to an assembled one. And in calling attention to his writing, Hendrickson calls attention to the fact that this is a story. His story. He owns it by virtue of being the one telling it. He's a storyteller telling the true story of someone else's story. In this he is doing what Hemingway himself did but with more tact, consideration, self-restraint, and conscience or at least a less flexible one. Hemingway's conscience was clear when he turned other people’s stories into his own because he thought of what he was doing, using real people to tell his stories, as honest and honorable. He was true to what he knew if not exact about the truth. He wrote from facts. The way painters paint from life. Three artists paint the same landscape and turn out three different paintings and the best one isn't the one that comes closest to a photograph. In Hemingway’s Boat, Hendrickson is telling the true story about a man who told stories about himself he meant to be true but weren't always. He couldn't help it. He lied. Gertrude Stein said it was because he was a coward. He couldn't face the truth about himself. Hendrickson thinks more highly of him. He thinks Hemingway was actually heroic in his attempts to tell the truth, as he saw it. The question is, What did he see? With the follow ups, What didn't he see? What did he miss? What did he ignore? What did he pretend not to see? When was he mistaken about what he thought he saw? When was he out and out lying?
Trying to answer those questions and by being open about how he’s going about it, Hendrickson inserts himself into the story. One way or another, implicitly and explicitly, he warns us: Here's what I think happened. He's telling the story inside or around the main story of how he came to think what he thinks. He's a character in that second story which makes him a character in the first one. The narrator as witness (if often at a remove of decades) and he sees no point in trying to hide himself. I tracked down this. I talked to so and so. I visited here and there. I saw, I heard, I felt.
Hendrickson introduces his larger chapters with passages that I’m calling chapter-ettes printed in italics meant, I’m pretty sure, to remind us of the short-short stories and prose poems that punctuate In Our Time. But I don’t think the real model is Hemingway. It's Conrad. It’s Lord Jim. In how the narrative circles and then circles back on its protagonist, in its multiple points of view, in the narrator’s frank admission that he is telling a story he isn’t sure he truly understands about a man whose head he finally can’t get inside of, whose heart he can’t read, who remains until the end a puzzle, Hendrickson’s book and its main character reminds me very much of Conrad’s novel and its main character. Hemingway would've liked that. He was a great admirer of Conrad.
Keeping in mind that Lord Jim is the story of a would-be hero who, ultimately, in his own eyes, doesn't measure up.
Way back, I intended to pair this review with my review of William Kennedy’s novel Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, in which Hemingway is a major character. Didn’t work out. But, thanks to the wonderfulness of the interwebs, you can still read them as a pair if you follow the link to Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shores: All of history summed up in an uncashed check.
Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost is available as of this week in paperback from Vintage. My review is based on the hardcover edition published last fall by Knopf. There is, as you may have guessed, a kindle edition, as well.
Photo up top of Pilar on display at the Hemingway Museum in Havana by Natalie Maynor via Wikipedia. Photos of Hemingway at the wheel of Pilar and in his house in Havana courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.