Friday, July 1, 2011

THE SUN ALSO SETS: Hemingway's death, 50 years later

“There are never any…
successful suicides.”
— Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Miller Hemingway has been something of an obsession of mine, dating back...well, for decades.

I was acutely aware of Hem as a persona in the 1960s. He checked out July of ’61. I checked in July of ’62, five days short of Hemingway's own birth date.

The fact Hemingway was first a reporter probably did more to put me on the same career path as anything else that resulted in my making a living as a journalist.

And then there was that larger-than-life persona Hemingway cultivated...

If you grew up a bookish male in the 1960s, your ideal of manhood was, more likely than not, shaped by Hemingway and Sean Connery's James Bond. Those two potent, iconic pop-culture images represented twin poles of a certain brand of impossible to sustain masculinity. Hemingway, I always insist, was destroyed by his aging body and that face in the mirror that couldn't measure up to the words and protagonists he put on the page. Similarly, Bond's creator, Ian Fleming, killed himself early with cigarettes, liquor and a lifestyle that would have put his perpetually 30-something literary creation in an early grave.

"Hem had judged himself.
“'Papa' just didn’t measure up to his own standard for a man, Hector figured.
Writers don’t retire and Papa couldn’t write anymore." — from TOROS & TORSOS

A lot of Hemingway admirers — and detractors — felt or still feel suicide violated Hemingway's own stoic masculine code and revealed Hem to be some kind of hypocritical coward. I've never counted myself among those who feel suicide is an act of cowardice. Despair? Yes. Selfishness? Often. But cowardice? I can't quite agree...

Hemingway looms large in the first four of eight books in the series of Hector Lassiter novels. In the first book, Head Games, Hem casts a long shadow. The second novel, Toros & Torsos, in which Hemingway is a prominent character, ends on the morning of Hemingway's death in Ketchum, Idaho, July 2, 1961.

The third novel, Print the Legend, is an exploration of Hemingway's death, and it examines the role that the FBI and his last wife, Mary, might have variously played in Hemingway's demise. (Interestingly, Hemingway intimate A.E. Hotchner has recently revised his opinion of Hemingway's notorious FBI obsession...echoing a thesis I put forward in PTL. You can read Hotchner's essay from The New York Times here.)

Earlier this year, the fourth Lassiter novel, One True Sentence, was published. Set in 1924 Paris, the novel is driven by a plot revolving around a kind of suicide cult.

The fact Hemingway is used to such a degree in the first four published Lassiter novels has "typed" me with certain critics around the world. On a recent trip to Paris to promote two novels in which Hemingway figures prominently, a French reporter remarked, "So, you'll go out the same way, yes?" That bizarre assertion led to a discussion of whether suicide is a coward's act, or that of a courageous man. Papa's kid brother, a man who'd eventually take his own life, regarded Ernest's death as something akin to the last act of a defiant a kind of heroic ritual aimed at beating the Grim Reaper to the KO.

In Arizona earlier this year, at a book event with James Sallis, a man in the audience offered his opinion that the Mayo Clinic and the decision to give a depressed, ailing Hemingway electroshock treatment drove Hemingway to a destructive act he would not otherwise have undertaken.

It didn't seem worthwhile to rebut the man's theory...not in that setting. But I wholly reject the notion that a failed treatment for depression put Hemingway in the ground.

Fact is, Hemingway tried to kill himself several times before he ever received shock treatment. He had guns taken from his shaking hands and hidden from him in his sad, concrete-constructed last house. He tried to walk into a spinning airplane propellor on his way to the Mayo Clinic. If certain sources can be believed, he once tried to open the door of an airplane while in flight.

Long before Hem's father turned a gun on himself, Hem often wrote of suicide. In an excised portion of Print the Legend, I counted the ways in which suicide loomed in Hemingway's fiction, including some pieces he wrote in his teens, each of which ended in self-inflicted death.

Truth is, I firmly believe Hem's own story could only have one bloody outcome.

But what does that violent end have to do with a literary legacy? A lot of articles being published on this grim July anniversary hinge on that question. But that's not a question that resonates with me.

"Trust the art, not the artist," is a kind of mantra that appears in various forms throughout the Hector Lassiter series, and, particularly, in the novels in which Hemingway figures. Writers I submit, more often than not, are better on the page than in person. "It is a dangerous thing," Hemingway said, "to know a writer." Bittersweet personal experience leads me to believe Hem was mostly right on that sad point.

On the 50th anniversary of Hemingway's death, the appropriate thing to do is not to lift a glass, or make a pilgrimage to some Hem-associated site which long ago lost any patina Hemingway himself would have recognized.

Better to crack a spine on a collection of Hem's sublime short fiction, or to delve into The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, or A Moveable Feast.

Authors live most fully in the pages of their books. Even after fifty years under a big stone marker in the Ketchum Cemetery, Hem still speaks to us through his revolutionary prose.

Excerpt from PRINT THE LEGEND:

July 2, 1961

He rose with the sun as he had every morning since childhood.

It was Sunday and the old man was alone in the house with his wife, Mary.

George, his ex-boxer pal, was in the cinder block guest quarters next door. He trusted his damaged memory on that much.

The old man shrugged on his “Emperor’s robe” that draped his wasted frame like a red circus tent. He hardly recognized his own face in the bathroom mirror — his wispy, white fly-away hair was going every which way and his smile back at himself was something terrible to behold. Passionate brown eyes each of four wives praised as his best feature were now as empty and dead as those of the trophy heads gathering dust at his abandoned Cuban Finca.

He reached for his toothbrush with a trembling hand, then thought better of it: perhaps the funk of morning mouth would mask the taste of the oiled barrels of the shotgun.

Mary had locked his guns away from him in the storeroom. She left the key to their hiding place resting on the ledge over the kitchen sink. He had seen the key there last night — as she had perhaps intended…left the key just sitting there on their first night back from the Mayo Clinic. The old man’s rattled brain kept wondering at Mary’s reason for hiding the key in plain sight.

A taunt, or invitation?

A characteristic half-assed kindness?

He snorted at the mystery of his last wife’s motive for making this he was about to do possible, and, grimacing, tiptoed down the stairs to the storeroom.

The old man selected a silver-inlaid, 12–gauge double-barreled Boss bought years before at Abercrombie & Fitch. He broke open his carefully cared-for shotgun and cradled it in the crook of his left arm. He pulled open a drawer and selected a box of shells. The old man’s hands trembled so badly he couldn’t draw any from the container. Disgusted, he emptied the shells into the drawer and scooped a handful in a fast reach for his robe’s puckering pocket. Two cartridges — more than enough to do the job — fell true; the rest pinged as they hit the floor and rolled to the four corners.

The self-declared “former writer” would normally be deep into his morning’s composition at this early hour, but that was in another country, the old man thought bitterly, and his muse was at last dead.

He trudged back up the stairs, lugging the big English-made gun. He thought of his father, making a similar last climb up a flight of stairs, intent upon effecting a bloody escape from his own intolerable half-life. He now had the answer to the question he had posed so many years before, in a story inspired by his father: “Is dying hard, Daddy?”

He knew now how easy it could be, denied your desires and the things you are driven, for better or worse, to do.

He crossed the living room to the foyer directly under Mary’s bedroom, pausing to stare out the window at the cloudless sky and rising July sun glistening on the ripples where the rocks lay thickest on the bed of the Wood River from which two deer now drank.

Gnats sported in the rapid’s spray in easy reach of the trout that gorged on them.

Chipmunks darted through the dew-kissed grass, unaware of the old man’s stalking cats.

Bald buzzards wheeled on the rising vapors.

It would be a good morning for others to hunt or hike or to go fishing...

Seppuku by shotgun: If he could wait nineteen days, he could celebrate his sixty-second birthday.

The old man’s trembling hand rooted the pocket of his robe for the first shotgun shell. His heart beat faster. Robbed of his own words, he resorted to those of another to whom he had once been improbably compared. He muttered the favorite quote over and over to himself:

A man can die but once…he that dies this year is quit for the next.

-©2010 by Craig McDonald