It seemed like a really “fun” conceit: Hemingway as a detective figure in a series of novels. I missed the first book in this series so I started cold. Good sign; Thomas Dunne, a good editor at St. Martin
Run-on sentences that suggest sloppiness rather than a deliberate and focused mind slap us in the face like a trout on the line of Bill Campbell in The Sun Also Rises. (By the way, “whatever” appears three times quite early in the book as responses in the mouths of both Dos Passos and Hem, in conversation. My modest research finds that 21st-century expression that connotes ignorance, not caring, or “I dunno!,” was nonexistent in idiomatic usage in Hemingway’s time.)
The run-on sentences are often impenetrable, sometimes nonsensical. The first chapter
abounds in them. They fly in the face of Hemingway’s terse muscularity of prose, to be sure, but if for a grander purpose we might forgive it, give it a little more line to run and make a charming, startling leap. Alas, it does not.
Hemingway and the other men ran around the perimeter or sometimes across the open middle, and the bull tried to chase them, always coming faster and sooner than you’d think, so the diving, sprinting, laughing Spaniards were often enough caught on its head, ripped by its horns, and thrown into the air.
Jesus Christ, Hemingway growled, keeping one eye on the staircase and trying to dash in inconspicuous bursts clockwise around the room, as the weathered old animal ran more or less also clockwise but intersected the room haphazardly in a homicidal rage, hitting the columns at random and shaking the rafters, looking for the nearest man to gore.
Say Uncle, papa.
Okay, the story. Someone has been offed, someone somewhat involved in the Spanish Civil War we never come to care about, but who was or was not a traitor or patriot or “whatever.” This gives the story a story, and the motivation for our heroic Hem to turn detective. He does so not out of passionate commitment, but out of a more elementary biological or egotistical or bored-to-death impulse. (All of these might be sufficient if he had smarts in his pursuit or even just passion—but it is abundantly clear he does not.)
As to characterization, Michael Atkinson knows his Dos Passos fairly well, but his Hem is barely passable. He insists on melodramatic shivers or other silent-film reactions of fear from his characters under pressure, often suggesting grand or petit mal seizure symptoms of the subjects of Hemingway’s churlish interrogations. Laughable? Depends on your sense of funny.
From “Christ, this is all I need” to “out of his misery together” around page 25, is one of the run-ons that make me want to run until I have left the sentence-paragraph behind!
Sorry to be so churlish, but “Hemingway didn’t know what was passing through the Russian’s skull and knew only that he had to tread firmly but gently and fearlessly, as you would around a rabid dog before you shot it” makes me queasy in a sentence kind of way. (I wrote UGH in the margin.) And so it goes, to quote Vonnegut.
From time to time, I find myself, in notating the novel, that the use of the serial comma elicits a positive response. I love the serial coma. And suddenly! Some wonderful writing:
For now the warm, syrupy wolverine bite of the brandy gave me a lordly view of the world from his provisioned station in 108, shells landing with crackling thuds miles away, gunfire spitting into the far distance, the spare and desolated and noble web of city sounds…
How to figure? And so it goes.
There are yet other examples of execrable writing. It would be overkill to quote them.
But I am sufficient a stickler to point out that humans deserve who as opposed to that, which latter is reserved to inanimates. And I will suggest that similes like “they slid off his brainpan, and into the abyss like his math lessons he didn’t want to remember…” are best left in the simile notebook.
Further, I insist that sentences like “And another shell hit, by the flat deep sound of its landing on asphalt right outside but perhaps a block away” make no sense. I get tired parsing sentences, don’t you?
On the positive side, we might take refuge, if not comfort, in the observation of the militant Basque patriot under duress who says, poetically, “Look. When we die, señor, we are always on a porch relaxing and drinking and looking out at the meadow.”
There were moments, very few, but moments nonetheless, that I was pulled into this story. Undoubtedly, I wanted to be, as I am committed to storytelling.
Yet anomalies, like “callbacks,” a term unknown in the era, jarred my ear. The misuse of the word “distended” did, likewise. And “To who” which would have been “to whom” in Hemingway’s careful writing; “on” le Porte d’Ivry” rather than “in” le Porte d’Ivry.
I am sorry to have to say the following is absurd, linguistically, grammatically:
He wished he had a pad and a pencil and a small desk in a corner to write, his head was giddily full of sentences, his adrenaline…
It is potentially quite good, but it is in fact quite bad as it rests on the page. I am sorry for that because I love writing and particularly good writing.
But Hemingway waited for the cough to pause, and the breathing crisis to subside, because, he supposed, he was too weak to do it otherwise.
A paragraph worthy of a real writer.
I approach books with wonder and expectation. I think the ability to create story and to craft it artfully are indeed magic. I am in awe of good writing, of a person’s ability to make a universe, no matter how limited in scope, from nothing but combinations of 26 letters and imagination. I want to be in awe. It is the author’s responsibility to pull the strings to make the puppet-novel-story convince the reader that this is true, this is the story…and to awe us with the truth of the story. That is no more than less for Tolstoy or for Atkinson. I am unconvinced by one and not by the other.
Michael Atkinson’s Hemingway Cutthroat was released on July 20 by Minotaur Books. To purchase it, click here.