- Print the Legend
A novelist who has a main character first use The Hemingway Review as a doorstop and later set another issue on fire and fling it out a window probably isn’t holding his breath waiting for a favorable review of his book in that particular publication. But Craig McDonald’s Print the Legend (its title taken from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the 1962 Western directed by John Ford) deserves the attention of Hemingway aficionados.
With its dust jacket bearing an eerie photograph of a shirtless older Ernest holding a shotgun, Print the Legend is both a literary thriller and a hardboiled crime novel in the tradition of Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, and Max [End Page 133] Allen Collins. But McDonald is a writer’s writer, so the book is also, improbably but effectively, a meditation on the art of writing fiction. All of its characters are writers, albeit of varying quality. The author’s love for Hemingway’s writings—not including the posthumous work, which he considers too adulterated by other hands—shines through. Each set of chapters takes for its title the title of a Hemingway book (though “Hemingway” is broadly interpreted; one chapteris called “How It Was” for Mary’s memoir), and each chapter has an aptly chosen epigraph from sources as wide-ranging as E. Howard Hunt, Frank Sinatra, Emily Brontë, and Doris Lessing. McDonald tosses off throw-away allusions and inside jokes with apparent effortlessness. (For example, one chapter is winningly titled “The End of the Beginning of Something.”) He even has the temerity to produce a “lost chapter” from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.
The novel’s (fictional) protagonist, Hector Lassiter, is a writer of crime novels who was part of Hemingway’s circle in Paris in the ’20s. The novel’s events are set in 1965, when Lassiter comes to Idaho to speak at a Hemingway conference (sharp-eyed readers will note that The Hemingway Review did not exist in 1965, and Hemingway conferences were rarer then—but surely this is forgivable poetic license) and finds himself in the center of an imbroglio involving Mary Hemingway, the singularly unimpressive Professor Richard Paulson, and Paulson’s pregnant wife, Hannah.
Paulson, who is more than a little comic in his desire to emulate Hemingway, doesn’t believe that Ernest killed himself and has come to Ketchum to confront Hemingway’s widow and learn the truth so that he can publish it and secure his standing as a literary scholar. The novel paints a highly unflattering (but perhaps not altogether inaccurate) portrait of Mary as a “middling journalist” given to self-aggrandizement and drinking to excess. Lassiter has heard mysterious rumors of Hemingway manuscripts (possibly written under the influence of mental illness) and is concerned about what they might do to his friend Ernest’s “long game”—that is, to Ernest’s reputation—and his own, as “the last man standing of the Lost Generation.”
McDonald has expressed interest in what he calls “secret history”—the dark underbelly of 20th century America. He draws extensively and imaginatively on what we now know (thanks to Herbert Mitgang and Michael Reynolds, whom he duly credits in his acknowledgements) about FBI surveillance of Hemingway. He even manages to involve the valise of manuscripts that Hadley, Hemingway’s first wife, so famously lost in the train on her way to Lausanne. [End Page 134]
Like the author he admires, McDonald is better at portraying male characters than female ones, and his hero, like several of Hemingway’s, comes across as larger than life—Lassiter is still a man of action in his mid-sixties, for example, and still irresistibly attractive to much younger women. Like those of Spillane and Collins, McDonald’s characters are often brutally violent. But these common flaws of the hardboiled genre are unlikely to faze Hemingway aficionados.
McDonald, whose background is in journalism, is the author of two earlier collections of interviews with writers, Art in the Blood and Rogue Males. Print the Legend is the third novel...