Man versus marlin

Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961, by Paul Hendrickson, Bodley Head, £20, 544 pages

In 1934 Ernest Hemingway returned by liner to the US after a safari in East Africa where he had contracted amoebic dysentery. Almost his first act on disembarking was to buy a boat: “I want to wash myself out clean with the Gulf Stream and the best soap I know – which is excitement or whatever you call it.”

The craft that arrived in Florida a few weeks later was a stocky 38ft motor cruiser; Hemingway named her Pilar after the shrine of Nuestra Señora del Pilar in Saragossa where he’d once watched bullfights. She cost him $7,000, most of which he borrowed from his publisher, and she was, said Hemingway, “sweet in any kind of sea”.

He was to own Pilar for the last 27 years of his life, until his suicide in 1961. According to his brother, Les, the novelist “loved everything for a small time, and then nothing was good any more”. Pilar was the exception: wives and friends came and went, as did both his urge to write and his critical reputation, but he remained faithful to his boat.

Pilar is the vessel in which the American author Paul Hendrickson launches his own fascinating foray into the overcrowded waters of Hemingway studies. This is not a straight biography – pre-eminently Jeffrey Meyers and Michael Reynolds have done that – but a highly individual joint study of “Papa” and his boat. So there is no Spanish civil war here or second world war or Africa but rather Key West, Cuba and, above all, the Gulf Stream, “the great blue river”, where he spent so many days fishing for blue marlin.

With Pilar, Hemingway developed a routine of alternating writing and fishing. His reward to himself for buffing another thousand words of The Snows of Kilimanjaro or a lengthy magazine article was to leave his desk, stock up on bait and take off on his boat for the deep channels where the big fish swam. Hendrickson follows close in his wake, assiduously checking his log, confirming the weather on any given day, listing who was on board, and even noting the details of the rods used.

The fish Hemingway caught teem on these pages. In two years in the 1930s he landed a staggering 91 marlin when big-game fishermen were lucky to catch two a season. On one trip a school of porpoises numbering, in Hemingway’s estimation, some 10,000 animals, appeared around the boat – a sight he thought no one would ever see again.

Sharks circled too. Hemingway hated them because, as in The Old Man and the Sea, they tore chunks out of hooked fish before they could be reeled in. He would strafe them with a Tommy gun, once blasting his initials into a predator’s head, another time accidentally shooting himself in the legs as he struggled to dispatch one who had taken his bait. On deck to witness such battles were a rolling cast of “opera singers, prizefighters, fellow writers, in-laws, kid brothers, navy brass, local wharf rats”.

Also present were wives number two, three and four, who he could treat both so well and so heartlessly. He beat and spat at his last wife, Mary, and abused her in public. He lined up the insults, as she wrote, “rolling them around juicily on his tongue: whore, bitch, liar, moron”. His sons, who tried so hard to live up to their alpha father’s expectations, crewed for him too. Hendrickson’s accounts of these unravelling relationships and of Hemingway’s selfishness and ego are painful to read and overshadow his instances of kindness.

This book is unusual not just in seeing Hemingway through the presence of his boat but in the way he writes. Hendrickson inserts himself into the story, he flits from lit-crit to reportage to biography and, just as owners are said to resemble their dogs, he uses a highly wrought Hemingway-inflected prose in which riverbeds are “pebble clean”, towns sit at “jackrabbit crossroads” and friendships “flint-spark into being”. The style is more extended New Yorker essay than book but it works and the result, to use Hemingway’s favourite term of praise, is not just enthralling, it is “fine”.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.