The Short Version: Harry Morgan is a boat captain forced to take on some less-than-savory clientele on the run between Key West and Cuba in order to keep himself and his family afloat in the years following the Great Depression. But after one job goes bad, Harry finds his life spiralling down into potentially inescapable depths…
The Review: It shouldn’t be surprising, I guess, that Ernest Hemingway wrote a sort of proto-noir, proto-thriller. If anyone in the Western canon was going to’ve done it, it makes sense in a way that it’d be him. But I have to say, I was surprised at nearly every turn by this unexpectedly adventurous novel – and while that may be because it’s one of the less-often-discussed Hemingways, I think it might also be because it feels so different from the traditionally accepted understanding of who Hemingway was as a writer.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: his prose stylings continue to refine and clarify, having decidedly shaken off the awkwardness of The Sun Also Rises while not quite achieving the perfection of The Old Man and the Sea. He’s not wasting any words but he’s also allowing his words a little room to live and breathe. That oft-repeated “Iceberg Theory” doesn’t seem to be as strictly held-to here – and, as a result, Hemingway delivers one of the most astonishingly effective diatribes on inequality I’ve ever read. If Hemingway was trying to be “as concise as possible”, I have some kind of doubt that that section would’ve ever made it into the final draft.
Before we get to that, let’s go back to the start. It turns out this novel was written in essentially two parts: two early short stories and a third novella, all following Harry Morgan on different boat trips. The first, “Spring”, sees Harry convinced to take a load of Chinese immigrants across to Florida from Cuba – but he decides to double-cross them, taking their money instead. The second, “Summer”, has Harry on a failed liquor run where he’s been shot in the arm, his black companion shot in the leg. The final, “Winter”, is not only a more expansive look at the people in Harry’s orbit but it’s a far bleaker moment: he realizes, as we do, that he’s at the end of his rope. When an offer comes his way to transport some Cubans across to Florida, he decides to take it – pulling in every last favor he can. When it turns out the Cubans he’s taking were bank robbers, the endgame is predictable albeit no less forceful for it.
I said earlier that I felt like this book had elements of proto-noir, proto-thriller – and I think the best analogy I can find is to the work of John le Carré, complete with every shade of grey and the sort of inevitable unhappy ending you might expect, that isn’t exactly a sad or bad ending but the one that makes you sort of collapse a little bit, realizing that the universe’s inevitable trend towards failure has won out once again. Harry Morgan does not live a life of quiet desperation, but it’s desperate alright – and it concludes in the sort of way that makes you shake your fist at the sky a little bit… and then shrug and sigh and try to carry on.
On the flipside, the book is a political firebrand. The Communist revolution has begun to percolate in Cuba and the spectre of communism haunts this novel’s pages… but it’s not an overt connection to the capital-letter cause. Instead, it’s the sort of working-class socialism that also influenced the likes of Clifford Odets – whose Waiting for Lefty bowed in New York just two years before To Have and Have Not was published. “You talk like a radical,” one character tells Harry, who responds: “I ain’t no radical. I’m sore. I been sore a long time.” Later, as Harry is facing down the Cubans on his boat, he thinks “What the hell do I care about his revolution? F— his revolution. To help the working man he robs a bank and kills a fellow works with him and then kills that poor damned Albert that never did any harm. That’s a working man he kills. He never thinks of that.”
I never thought of Hemingway as all that politically motivated – although I knew he’d been approached (willingly) by the KGB, albeit ultimately unsuccessfully. Still, this call to make life better for the common man felt more politically transparent here. The same desire is evident in The Old Man and the Sea, but here it is right out on the surface, right on the page. It’s like Dickens’ Hard Times, where the author’s politically motivated anger finally breaks through and cannot be contained in the background of the story anymore. All of this is leading to one section, a section far more experimental than I’d ever have expected of Hemingway, and the moment that caused me to burst out into tears reading the book on the subway.
Hemingway has been experimenting throughout the entire novel, I now realize: the structure is an experiment of its own and he’s been character-hopping a little bit, to the point that some chapters even open with an italicized “Harry” or “Albert” to explain who the “I” is when we’ve previously only been in the third person. These moments veer towards stream-of-consciousness and this all comes to a head when, in the third section, Hemingway drifts away from all of the action – Harry’s boat being towed in, the various goings-on of the secondary characters in town – and instead slips through each of the boats tied up at the dock and examines their owners. I can only describe this section as Woolfian in its ambition and its skill with sliding through time and space and I was surprised to see such a high-flying sort of writing in the midst of a book by an author known for being unadorned. We get these short little pictures of fully-formed characters in just a few sentences, a page or two at most, and it’s an impressive sight – perhaps all the more impressive for being unexpected.
But, of course, Hemingway isn’t using it as a narrative tool; rather, he’s making a political point. It’s the story of Henry Carpenter that gets me, because at the end of this particular boat’s vision, we hear that Henry is considering suicide after his Trust Fund was wiped out. He’s a rich boy, accustomed to certain things in life, but he’s been losing it “Thus Henry Carpenter postponed his inevitable suicide by a matter of weeks if not of months,” Hemingway writes, and we are relieved – because it’s sad that anyone should feel so down on their luck as to contemplate ending their life (and don’t think there isn’t an echo of reality here too, thinking of Hemingway’s own suicide).
But then he turns the knife, with a single one of those unadorned sentences, one that exists as its own paragraph: “The money on which it was not worth while for him to live was one hundred and seventy dollars more a month than the fisherman Albert Tracy had been supporting his family on at the time of his death three days before.”
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need a tissue.
Rating: 4 out of 5. It’s impossible to lose sight of the political point of this novel, not with Hemingway so skillfully driving it home. At a time when socialism and the plight of the working class are being hotly debated in this country, this book ought to be making a return to the more-frequently-read list – as it provides a look at those two issues that speaks to our present moment rather strongly. It is by no means a perfect book – the back third includes the introduction of several characters and their infidelities etc that seem tacked on, as though they were meant to be more fully fleshed out in a novel all to their own but that they ended up getting shoved in here like they had nowhere else ultimately to go. Ignore those scenes, or let them slip on by: it is the story of Harry Morgan, a good man forced to go bad and the world that let him down, caused him to have to do so, and ultimately cost him his life. 80 years later, not a whole lot has changed.