Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934 - 1961 (book)

Hemingway’s Boat:  Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 (Written by Paul Hendrickson)/2011

There is a lot about Ernest Hemingway to dislike. He was a bully to his romantic partners, his children, and other writers (Scott Fitzgerald to name one). He was a chronic alcoholic who would hit on other women in front of his wife, and fight other men for fun. He was extremely domineering but prone to intense sulking and withdrawal when things did not go his way. It was always someone else’s fault – even when it clearly was not.

None of the above attributes are hidden by Hendrickson in this fine book. However, by focusing on Hemingway’s famous boat Pilar it weaves people into the narrative of Hemingway’s life that in a classical biography would scarcely appear.

Hemingway’s Boat spends long periods focusing on people that spent time on Pilar with Hemingway, often for very long periods. For example, a young hobo spent a year on Pilar after tracking Hemingway down in an effort to advance his writing career. Hendrickson shows the reader how Hemingway often treated these temporary acquaintances much more kindly than those very close to him. Moreover, Hendrickson traces how these people’s lives progressed both before and after their experience with Hemingway, presenting lives in many ways as fascinating as Hemingway’s.

A large part of Hemingway’s Boat focuses on what happened to Hemingway’s estranged son Gregory (Gigi). Gigi began life emulating his father’s ultra-masculine ways by excelling at shooting and fishing. However, at the age of 10 Gigi was caught trying on his mother’s stocking, beginning a long and frustrating battle between a desire to cross-dress and the shame of public exposure. Hemingway, in his usual fashion, blamed Gigi’s mother for this, and then blamed Gigi for his mother’s sudden death after an intense argument.

It does not take a trained psychologist to see the link between a powerful and famously masculine father and an eventually transsexual son; it seems Hemingway was suspicious of Gigi from very early on, and even wrote about Gigi’s hidden sordid core in books. However, this isn’t the only intergenerational pattern that Hendrickson explores. He tells how Hemingway’s mother posted him the gun that his father took his life with as if to say that you are (or should be) next. Eventually, as is well known, Hemingway was next: a period of his life that Hendrickson navigates with care.

Even though this book contains a great amount of tragedy and hurt, it is actually a very tender read. Hendrickson has a soft, fluid writing style. Moreover, he is sympathetic to Hemingway while still acknowledging his faults. Some readers might not appreciate the affection which Hendrickson writes about Hemingway given the reality of alcoholism and violence setting the background to much of his life. Part of Hendrickson’s affection for Hemingway is likely because a large portion of this book explores Hemingway’s battle with mental illness, his use of electric-shock-therapy to prevent overwhelming paranoia, and his eventual suicide. It is harder to condemn a man that is ripped apart by mental illness than someone who hurts others for pleasure.

The second aspect of this book which makes it a gentle read is that Hemingway loved his boat very much and found peace and solace while Marlin fishing off Cuba. In these instances we find a man more suited to living with nature than in the complex interpersonal realm of relationships.

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