The Short Version: Featuring several stories following protagonist Nick Adams as well as a grab-bag of standalone stories, many of which revolve around the war and returning home, Ernest Hemingway burst onto the scene with this startling, slim collection in 1925.
The Review: I’m in a waning phase of short stories right now and I think Hemingway’s first collection – 1925, his first major publication – might be the thing that tells me to keep away from them for a while, let the fire build itself back over time. That sounds like a pretty bad way to start a review so let me make clear: I enjoyed this collection for the most part and certainly the parts I didn’t so much enjoy are not at all enough to get me to swear off the form. It’s more that these stories, in a way, function as the most simplistic and undiluted form of short story – to the point that they, despite their brevity in many cases, exhaust me.
I often think of “flash fiction” as a modern thing, tied to the rise of Twitter and McSweeney’s – or the sort of writing done best by punchy, almost violent writers like Lindsay Hunter. So it’s funny to realize that while they might not’ve been calling it “flash fiction”, people’ve been writing short short stories as long as there’ve been stories. Hemingway is, of course, apocryphally, responsible for the “For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn” Six-Word Story – but I didn’t expect this collection to be nearly all stories of short length, including several paragraph-long… they’re not quite short stories but they’re not necessarily connected either.
The thing that this collection does do is telegraph nearly everything that I’ve come to know and understand about Hemingway through his later work. There’s a long story about fishing, there’s plenty about the war, and plenty about bulls/bullfighting. The one thing there isn’t is much in the way of tough relationships, but “The End of Something” has a bit of that and anyway it was still early for Hemingway. Regardless, this book reads like crib sheet for the next thirty or so years (at least) of the man’s life – and that, I found absolutely fascinating. An author’s beginnings rarely show so much about their passions, about the things that would animate not just some but nearly all of the rest of their oeuvre. Coming to these stories after the fact, it was a thrill to see how the stories of the war would evolve into A Farewell to Arms, how “Big Two-Hearted River” (in its own way) would give birth to The Old Man and the Sea, and how (of course) the bullfighting flash paragraphs might almost be editing-room scraps of The Sun Also Rises. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered an author who I could so plainly, well, read like that.
Speaking of plainly, Hemingway’s style was, as it turns out, there from the start: his prose is unadorned and taut, rarely delivering more than is needed to evoke whatever moment or emotion the author is intending. But here, it can also be decidedly flat (not unlike certain passages of The Sun Also Rises) and even dare-I-say boring. Several of these stories don’t even function like fiction so much as they do stories told by a not that interesting friend of yours. I recently had a conversation (for the next episode of So Many Damn Books) where we talked about how anybody can be a writer/storyteller, because it’s just a matter of learning how to take the story they might tell about their day and add something narratively interesting to it – and these stories often push back on that. There’s not much terribly interesting about some people who live a life and have a time and then that’s it, next story.
Except even as I say that, I think excitedly about going to see the next Gabriels play at The Public – and Richard Nelson’s simple plays about a family in Rhinebeck owe a debt to Hemingway’s simplicity and his decision to take the utterly ordinary and imbue it with a certain grandeur simply in the telling. So many stories that I love find storytelling roots not just in Hemingway, but (by extension) here, where Hemingway started. These stories don’t show the emotional maturity that would come later – and there are several stories that veer into the nearly unreadable due to their toxic masculinity and use of derogatory slurs – but the talent on display is undeniable, even unpolished.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. Hemingway is sometimes exhausting, even when he’s working at his most brief – I never thought a story lasting less than a page front-and-back could leave me feeling tired, but there you go – but he’s always at least interesting. You can see the beginnings of everything that Hemingway is best known for here in this collection and for those seeking to understand the man’s work, it’s worth coming back here to the start. But I also can’t deny that several of these stories feel juvenile or even unnecessary in some regards, making the reading of a 150-page collection at times a trial. Still, it was worth the work for the gems that were here already at the start of what we all know would be a towering career.