Paperback review: Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Love in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961, By Paul Hendrickson

Captain Ahab without a Moby Dick

This vast, meandering biography interprets Hemingway's life through his passion for deep-sea fishing. Hemingway loved to take his boat, Pilar, from Key West out into the Gulf Stream to hunt blue marlin, but there was never a fish quite big enough to satisfy him: he was an Ahab without a Moby Dick. The image of Papa as moustachioed swashbuckler will be familiar to most, and, aside from some fresh detail about Hemingway's fraught relationship with his children, Hendrickson doesn't really tell us anything new here.

It is, rather, his vivid and intensely personal writing style that sets him apart from previous critics. Imitating Hemingway is a risky business – as the man himself demonstrated when, in later years, his prose slipped into mannered self-parody – but Hendrickson seems to have absorbed something of his subject's facility for language and imagery. He proffers terse descriptions of the churning Gulf ("the sun slants in like molten lead, as the teasers dip and dive in the wake") that would sit handsomely in one of Hemingway's own stories.

Indeed, Hemingway's influence on other authors is a key theme of this book. In a moving chapter, Hendrickson tells the story of Arnold Samuelson, an aspiring novelist who worked briefly for his hero on board Pilar in 1935. The encounter haunted him: Samuelson was forever aware of the chasm between Hemingway's talent and his own, and, after a difficult, peripatetic life, he died unpublished. As for so many writers, Hemingway was both a guiding light and the mountain that blotted out the sun.

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