Hemingway’s Boat

By Paul Hendrickson

Parul Sehgal, The Plain Dealer, September 18, 2011

Papa can’t rest in peace.

Has there been an American author more relentlessly mythologized, psychoanalyzed, and plain pilloried than Ernest Hemingway?

He’s been labeled a brute, a bully and a bore. A heartless seducer of women and a closeted homosexual. An absurd cartoon of hypermasculinity and a transvestite. His critics and rivals, his children and grandchildren have had their say in memoirs. His fiction has been combed for clues. His bones have been picked clean. But one little mystery remains. And her name is Pilar.

She’s a sturdy, 38-foot motor yacht, hewn from Canadian fir and Honduran mahogany, “sea kindly” as the old fishermen used to say, steadfast in any waters. And steadfast she proved — outlasting Hemingway’s three wives, the dissolution of almost every one of his friendships, and the slow unraveling of his confidence and his sanity.

She’s the heroine of a glorious new biography, “Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961,” from Paul Hendrickson, who won the National Book Critics Circle award in 2004 for “Sons of Mississippi.”

The craft proves that there just might be one more way of telling Papa’s story.

By focusing on Pilar — and the period Hemingway possessed her, his final 27 years — Hendrickson anchors his account in the material, not the speculative. Thus this book, full of pilgrimages — first to Pilar herself, who Hendrickson finds in Cuba, beached “on concrete blocks, like some old and gasping browned-out whale.”

The author handles her like the relic she is, and makes of her a cunning, capable metaphor for Hemingway’s contradictory drives. Pilar was instrumental to the creation of the Hemingway myth and where he fled to escape it. Hendrickson aligns the “dry-docked, parts-plundered” boat hollowed out by termites and her erstwhile owner “who let his own insides get eaten out by the diseases of fame.”

In coming at his subject through this love letter to a boat, Hendrickson achieves a copious, mystical portrait of “this most riddlesome of men.” If conventional Hemingway biographies follow a familiar trajectory — pinning the posturing and the depression on some early trauma (his mother’s propensity for dressing him as a girl, his war wound, his father’s own suicide) — in coming at his subject at a slant, Hendrickson complicates and humanizes Hemingway.

Which is not to say he reveals the man. Papa still proves maddeningly elusive. This is, after all, a book about a boat, and we learn far more about the fish Hemingway lands than any of his wives. What we do get is context. Hendrickson fills in the negative space exuberantly. He imagines each scene completely, and then imagines himself into it. The book becomes a participatory biography — the details are rendered with a hallucinatory intensity.

We’re in the scene, merging with Hendrickson and Hemingway’s consciousness, scouting the Michigan rivers Hemingway fished as a boy, wiggling our toes into the riverbeds — some pebbled, some “soft as birdshot,” wading deeper into waters “icy cold, clean as silver, riffling over stones, alive with fat, pulpy rainbows.”

Contouring not Hemingway but his environment and the weight of his presence equips Hendrickson to take on his second, subtler task: to consider the “destructive influence of a man’s unconscious on those whom he deeply loved” — namely, his sons.

There were three Hemingway boys, all unhappy in their own way — but none so tragic as the youngest: Gregory, nicknamed Gigi. He struggled to be the son his father wanted, miserably concealing his compulsion to wear women’s clothing, and even exiling himself to Africa for a season of “therapeutic” elephant shooting. He underwent gender reassignment surgery, but by then the effects of substance abuse and bipolarism had begun. He died, raving, in a women’s prison in 2001.

Gigi’s life reads like one long scream. It’s depicted with sensitivity (although it’s curious that Hendrickson never refers to Gigi by his chosen name, Gloria, nor does he use the female pronoun) and squeamishness. Chary of “daffy” psychological explanations, Hendrickson makes his own clumsily: “I’ll whoof this straight out: a lifelong shamed son was only acting out what a father felt.”

The author’s primness keeps him from exploring the implications of this startling claim, even as Hendrickson identifies Hemingway’s agonized attraction to the feminine “which is why his work endures, why his best work will always have its tuning-fork ‘tremulousness.’ ”

Still, it’s the unimpeachably masculine Hemingway who dominates the book. All his ambiguities and darkness — the months in the “bunker-like house” in landlocked Idaho, where he rotted, tormented by bipolarism and his inability to write — fly by in summary.

It’s as though Hendrickson’s eye is trained to find splendor, to seek the light. “Amid so much ruin, still the beauty,” he writes. And so this bighearted book leaves us with a litany of sorrows, but also images of grace: of heroism in Gigi’s muddled final moments; of tenderness and lucidity in Hemingway’s paranoid last days; and of Pilar and her promise of escape, renewal, and the open sea.

Parul Sehgal is a senior editor at Publishers Weekly.

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