Probably no American writer has had more words written about him in the last half century than Ernest Hemingway, and none has suffered more psychobabble. At a time when rehashing and bitching seem all that's left, Paul Hendrickson's book is that rare thing: a book about Hemingway that is alive and moving and brimming with fresh material.
The core of the book is a history of Hemingway's boat, Pilar. That will sound flat. It isn't in the least, for Hendrickson's aim is "to try to lock together the words 'Hemingway' and 'boat' in the same way that the locked-together and equally American words 'DiMaggio' and 'bat,' or 'Satchmo' and 'horn,' will quickly mean something in the minds of most people, at least of a certain age."
Hendrickson succeeds for many reasons. The first is the twenty-four years of research and writing he put into this book, which began, without his yet realizing what he was up to, when he interviewed Hemingway's three sons as a Washington Post reporter in 1987. Working as a journalist for thirty years rather than as an academic drudge is the second reason for his success. Hendrickson writes clearly and lyrically. At times the book is even a love song: not so much for Hemingway (whom he greatly admires but whose failings as a person, friend, and father he is also very clear about) nor even for Pilar (which he is much taken with) as it is for Hemingway's little known friends who come into his life because of Pilar. These people's stories are the life breath of this book. A third reason for the success of this book is that Hendrickson is a natural essayist. Following these people's lives meant "more than a few purposeful zigzags and loop-arounds and time-bends and flashbacks and flash-forwards and other sorts of departures from the main frame," the story of Pilar. Essentially Hendrickson's book is a sheaf of essays wrapping themselves around the story of Pilar, and every one of these essays is filled with a love—for the people, the times, and the places—that I have not seen in any other work on Hemingway. Each story, each essay, is a joy to read.
For the first hundred pages the book is a definitive treatment of Pilar, how Hemingway came to buy it, the Wheeler company that made [End Page lxxiv] it, how it was outfitted, its engines, its cost, and more. Hendrickson will come back time and again to Pilar, its alterations, how Hemingway fished from it, its eccentric use during World War ii as a vessel to hunt German U-boats in the Caribbean, and the arguments over whether the boat that sits dry-docked and in a parts-plundered state a hundred yards from the Finca Vigia is the real boat that Hemingway once skippered. "She wasn't a figment or a dream or a literary theory or somebody's psychosexual interpretation," Hendrickson writes—"she was actual." And he is very moved when he first sees the boat.
Hendrickson devotes only one-and-a-half pages to Pilar's best-known episode: Hemingway's hunting of German U-boats in the Caribbean from November 1942 to the end of 1943. (The fullest account of this fourteen-month episode is contained in Terry Mort's The Hemingway Patrols: Ernest Hemingway and His Hunt for U-boats.) While Hendrickson admits the sub-hunting was fueled by alcohol, ego, the desire to fish, and gas rations from the stingy U.S. government in wartime, he also thinks there were "courageous motivations at work." It would indeed require courage—and a mind out of touch with reality—to try to sink a sub with a Tommy gun and grenades. Thank God a sub was sighted only once, and it was far away, or we might not have had The Old Man and the Sea and A Moveable Feast. My own feeling is that...