Hemingway’s Boat, by Paul Hendrickson
image via csmonitor.com
“You know you love the sea and would not be anywhere else…She is just there and the wind moves her and the current moves her and they fight on her surface but down below none of it matters.”
That’s a segment from Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, repeated in this book on pages 457 and 458, and it sums up Hendrickson’s view of the great American writer. The author’s project here, built somewhat waveringly about his boat, Pilar, is to depict, not the superficial man – the writer, the fisher, big game hunter, drinker, and womanizer, but the man few have written about, the man few knew.
The more important parts of this book draw on letters to and from friends and family. They show a Hemingway who could be generous to a fault, as with the “maestro,"Arnold Morse Samuelson, who showed up destitute at Hemingway’s door in Key West – just to meet his writing hero. Hemingway not only tutored Morse, but kept him around for a year to experience life at sea.
Then there was Hemingway’s family, particularly his youngest son, Gregory, or Gigi, as Papa called him. Gigi was talented – adept at so many things that mattered to and that mirrored Papa – but a troubled soul. Gigi was a cross dresser who, near the end of his life, sought and received a sex change operation. He was also a bright, articulate, friendly, well-read person, a doctor.
author image via libraryjournal.com
Hendrickson posits that beneath Papa’s ultra-male exterior resided, not a latent homosexual as some, from Zelda Fitzgerald to Hemingway’s posthumous chroniclers, have proclaimed, but a complex person, perhaps an androgynous person, living out many subterranean facets of his makeup through his writing.
Until Gigi’s behavior became apparent to Papa, that is.
Gigi is portrayed here as those submerged aspects of Papa manifested. The son is confronting his own personality conflicts at the time Hemingway is writing the book eventually published under the title, The Garden of Eden. Hendrickson surmises that the gender-swapping aspects of his protagonist’s ménage à trois were Hemingway’s attempt at trying to understand Gigi. Since Hemingway was one of the first American writers to fictionalize personal life in such depth, Hendrickson may not be far off the mark.
The writing here is elegant, the research deep and well thought out. As I wrote earlier, the story wanders in and out of many lives, all hovering about the presence of Pilar. It would be crude to criticize Hendrickson’s work here in a structural sense; it’s not meant to be that sort of work, but a deep, caring investigation of the man many love to hate, the person who made the most significant impact on the art of modern writing.
My rating: 17 of 20 stars