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Appetite for Destruction
Ernest Hemingway’s death trip


The unusually striking photograph on the cover of Mary V. Dearborn’s new biography Ernest Hemingway shows the writer in his prime in 1933 sitting on the cushioned stern of a boat, possibly his thirty-eight-foot cabin cruiser the Pilar, and aiming a pistol at the camera. He always carried guns on board to shoot sharks or, when bored or annoyed, seabirds and turtles. He was thirty-four when this photo was taken and he had recently discovered Key West and the fabulous Gulf Stream with its gigantic marlin, sailfish, and tarpon. He fished and fished and fished, insatiable. There were the heroic fighting fish, the trophy fish—some of which he used as punching bags after they were strung up on the dock—but all provided pleasure. When a colorful school of dorado appeared on the surface around the Pilar, Hemingway and his party landed eighteen of them in five minutes. They’d be used as fertilizer for his wife’s flower beds. He referred to this time, the decade of the ’30s, as his “belle epoque,” for there was not only the happy scouring of the Gulf Stream, but also the hunting in Wyoming for elk and antelope (for lighter fare he shot prairie dogs from a moving car) and the safari in Africa, where lions, leopards, cheetahs, and oryx could be collected, though it rankled him when others killed bigger animals than he did, or those with darker manes, bigger racks, or, in the case of rhinos, larger horns.

“I like to shoot a rifle and I like to kill and Africa is where you do that,” he said.

But killing could be fun anywhere. In Sun Valley, Idaho, he and two of his young sons, Gregory and Patrick, visiting from school, shot four hundred jackrabbits during one adventure. Years later, another son, Jack, would reminisce that “one of the most memorable moments of my lifelong relationship with my father” took place in Cuba on the roof of the Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s home there, where they drank pitchers of martinis and shot “great quantities of buzzards.” The highlight for Patrick, “the last really great, good time we all had together,” was “dropping hand grenades on turtles” from the deck of the Pilar during the bizarre sub-hunting days of the ’40s, the acts “justified by the need to learn how long it was between when you pulled out the pin and when it went off.”

It is said that Hemingway never killed an elephant—he admired their fidelities and social structures apparently—but his youngest son, Gregory, the “troubled” child, the son who after several wives and eight children underwent sex-reassignment surgery and died in a Florida jail as “Gloria” Hemingway, shot eighteen elephants in a month. It’s possible he shot them to annoy his father, whom he considered a “gin-soaked abusive monster,” but he also claimed it was just damn relaxing to kill elephants. The activity made him less anxious about things.

Gregory wrote a book about “Papa.” So did his half-brother Jack. So did Hemingway’s brother Leicester, and Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary. In his younger years he was quite charismatic and people who knew him then remembered that and wrote about it. The bulls, the booze, the fresh air, the slopes, the streams and war stories. And many other books have been written about Hemingway—there is Carlos Baker’s chummy hagiography; Michael Reynolds’s deep life; Jeffrey Meyers’s woundy thesis, the one that bothered Raymond Carver so; Paul Hendrickson’s spirited, speculative boating party; James Mellow’s scholarly and overblown production (“He had been at the center of a cultural revolution unequalled in its wide-reaching effects on Western culture except by the Italian Renaissance . . .”); Kenneth Lynn’s psycho-hugie; Peter Griffin’s focus on the early, enchanted, good-looking days. Even so, it’s been fifteen years since we’ve had a major new study of the man. But now, with Dearborn’s grimly astonished book, we do.

One approaches the life of Hemingway not with excitement but with an anxious defensive duty. After all there are a great many writers who learned a great deal from his work—the early work always—the cleanness of the line, the freshness, the solemnity of the sentence, the discoveries that restraint and omission allow. Gertrude Stein said that he looked like a modern but smelled like a museum. I don’t smell museum. The word that springs to my mind is fetor. The stench of death. Hemingway stared death in the face again and again and was proud of it, but it was almost always an animal’s death, an animal’s face, a creature’s face, the face of a nature he repeatedly diminished, the light and life of which he would extinguish over and over.

He killed far more in life than he did in fiction, obsessively, methodically, in the sanctified slaughter referred to as sport.

(Behind a paywall. Contact me if you want the full review.)

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