Like many in New York, I spend a lot of time reading on the subway. In an average day I spend about 2 hours of quality reading time thanks to MTA!
So to kick start the ‘Subway Book Review’ I will be sharing my thoughts on my latest read, Ernest Hemmingway’s To Have and Have Not.
Summary and Critique:
The 1937 novel follows Harry Morgan, a fisherman scraping by with whichever means he can in the depression-era 1930’s. The story is set in both the Florida Keys and Havana, Cuba. Although Harry’s primary gig is taking tourists fishing, he also will run rum and people across the water for some quick cash.
The story begins in the spring on a Havana morning when Harry refuses to take 3 Cuban revolutionaries across the water. As these men leave the bar, they are violently shot. Harry makes a number of racial slurs about a black gunman and then Harry and his rum-addicted first mate Eddie take a tourist out marlin-fishing. At this point, I am waiting for Hemmingway to redeem the character Harry Morgan but it never happens. In fact, the character becomes harder to relate to as the chapter develops. After several days of fishing and lost equipment (he let a tackle and line go after refusing instructions), the tourist racks up an $800 dollar tab. After a dispute about the tackle and line, the wealthy business man shares a beer with Harry and Eddie and promises to pay the following day. Instead he leaves the island to return to the States and never pays. This was one of the more compelling parts of the book as you really got a sense of Harry’s desperation and his tough exterior is conveyed very believably.
Broke and desperate, Harry makes a deal to take a dozen Chinese workers to the US in order to get back home to Key West. However, upon receiving the payment for the job, Harry murders the man he had done business with and leaves the Chinese immigrants stranded in Cuba. In this chapter I had heard more racial slurs directed at Chinese people than I had ever heard in my entire life. I figured at this point that Hemmingway did not want Harry Morgan to be a redeemable character.
The story then picks up the following winter where Harry sustains a bullet shot to the arm and is in need of medical attention. His new first mate, Wesley, also has a bullet wound, to the leg. This chapter is written in first person, as were the previous chapters, and the racial slurs are never spoken out loud, they exist in Harry’s thoughts. Also, this is the first time in the book that a black character speaks or is given a name. They were shot by the Cuban government upon attempting to dock at a familiar Cuban port. They were illegally transporting rum and still had all of the now bloody bags on ship. Upon sailing back to Florida, the ship runs into a government official who happens to be vacationing in the Keys. The official suspects the boat of carrying illegal goods and decides to take action against the ship and crew in order to gain media attention. After the entire ordeal, Harry loses his right arm but worst of all (according to Harry), he loses his boat, his only source of income, as it’s confiscated by American Customs Services. Albeit a bit over-dramatic (I get it, it’s 1930’s literature so I’ll accept it) and a touch cliché, the comparison of Harry’s right arm to the importance of his boat is subtly delivered.
After introducing an entire slew of new characters, which confused the plot as I questioned their relevance, we get a glimpse as to the dynamic between Harry and his wife Marie. He is very sweet toward her and she is head-over-heels love with him. I was a bit intrigued by this as I really wanted to dislike Harry but this new side of him added a new dimension to his character. The book then changes vantage point and continues changing with little consistency or rhyme until the end of the book. As it’s not consistent with the first half of the book I am once again questioning the relevance of this decision. Harry’s wife’s thoughts are also included in a chapter. In it she discusses her love for Harry, one of her fondest memories (when she became a bleach blond at a salon in Havana), and how much she loves brushing her hair. Really? Are these the thoughts that Hemmingway assumed go through most women’s heads. It wouldn’t be a big deal if, when compared to the men, they were equally shallow. However, the men seem to have infinite more depth and character than the women. Also noteworthy are the numerous racial slurs that Marie makes both in thought and in casual speech to her husband. However, at this point I try to keep an open mind thinking that this woman will be compared to another smart woman later on and that Hemmingway will also feature the thoughts of a non-white character. The following day, Marie is in the car with her husband and his buddy. She again mentions her hair asking if he’d like her to lighten it.
Another female character’s thoughts are featured in a chapter soon following. This new character is introduced along with a number of other characters that make one-time appearances. At least Hemmingway is consistent in his seemingly irrelevant choices. This woman’s thoughts are similar to Marie in that they focus on her hair. She seems to also enjoy brushing her hair but her thoughts never extend beyond sex and relationships.
Harry’s friends find themselves working on government-sponsored relief projects or low-paying menial work, which seems to be increasingly common for this era. With a wife and 2 children to support, he says that he wouldn’t be able to support his family on this kind of work. So Harry accepts a deal to take Cuban revolutionaries back across to Cuba. The job pays alright but the catch is that he will be delivering them after they rob a bank in order to help bankroll the impending Cuban revolution. I know that Hemmingway spent quite a bit of time in Cuba and I was hoping for some more on the subject of revolution. However, in classic Spartan Hemmingway style, he only writes the essentials and just tells it as he sees it. No Cuban in the book (and there are many) is ever given their own narrative and with the exception of one character, a young mild-mannered revolutionary with a nice voice, they are never given names. Harry and a friend who is working on the relief decide to steal back his boat for the job. However, the coast guard finds it the following day and confiscates the boat again. Harry denies any knowledge of this. Harry then asks a friend and owner of the local pub to charter his boat to take some Cubans across. He omits the detail of the bank robbery and the friend agrees. Somewhere in this time a black female character is finally introduced. She is supposedly the best looking tourist to come into town year. However, we later learn that she is illiterate.
Once the Cubans board the ship, one of them kill Harry’s first mate and friend Albert. The Cuban gunman then reveals his plan to kill Harry as well. At this point I was a bit sick of all of the nautical terms and even more tired of Hemmingway’s direct and spare writing style. Although it epitomized a popular American style of writing, I found it boring and unimaginative. After fleeing the coast guard and almost in Cuba, Harry Morgan shoots everyone on the ship. He sustains a bullet wound to the stomach and becomes delirious. His boat floats back toward the Keys where the coast guard finds it and tows it back to land. Harry’s last delirious words describe something to the effect of how hard it is to be born poor and that a man (yes, man) has no chance. He says it took him his whole life to figure it out. I felt that the book would have been much stronger has Hemmingway left this out. It felt a little condescending and it cheapened the story to have the concept behind the book summarized at the very end.
In conclusion, I have no interest in reading another Hemmingway book. I finished it not because I enjoyed the read, but because I like to finish what I start. I was left unsatisfied (which was probably his intention given the subject-matter) and I wondered why most of the principal female characters in his books are all called some variation of Mary. Although many avoid critiquing his possibly misogynistic, racist, and anti-Semitic views due to the times, I say that while most people are the products of their time they are not bound to it. There are certainly people who have transcended the flaws of their time and culture.