Everyone knows about prohibition in America during the early years of the twentieth century and the various mobsters who made their fortune bootlegging alcohol across county lines. What many don’t know is the bootleggers who came by sea. In one of his lesser known novels, Hemingway explores the life of a smuggler during the great depression.
The story follows a man by the name of Harry Morgan, a middle-aged ship captain who is pushed into a life of crime after becoming broke. He makes his money by smuggling both alcohol and people, namely Chinese immigrants seeking a new life in America. Harry makes the trek back and forth between Havana in Cuba and Key West in Florida.
The novel breaks up into separate parts depending on the season. The book opens in spring, where Harry is fucked over by some rich prick who said he’d pay him to go fishing for three weeks. Not only did he not receive his fees, but he also lost some very expensive equipment due to his customers carelessness while out in the boat.
At this point Harry is left no choice but to smuggle twelve Chinese men to Florida, for which he’s paid $12,000. But of course, nothing is ever simple. Once he receives the immigrants, Harry murders the man he was doing business with, citing that he was “the easiest man I’ve ever done business with, so something was definitely off” and then proceeding to kick the immigrants off the boat back in Havana- essentially cheating them out of their money.
At this point I’m staring to question the judgement of the reviewers who refer to Harry as “essentially a good man” because that is demonstrably untrue. Harry Morgan is a Sociopath. The book opens with him witnessing a drive by and then he just goes back to work as if nothing ever happened. He kills up to six people in this book and feels no remorse.
It also doesn’t help that he continuously refers to people via racial slurs. The only people he doesn’t dehumanise are the Cubans, Hemingway doesn’t want to fuck with Cubans.
Now I know there’s the argument that people are a product of their time and hence the novels of that said time are often problematic in nature, but so long as they have positive themes and messages these problems should be overlooked. Well, that argument would be a lot more appealing if Ernest Hemingway wasn’t a timeless asshole.
The general prejudice throughout the book would be a lot more tolerable if it was like “Oh, the character is Racist” but because the book randomly changes perspectives for no goddamn reason you come to the conclusion “Oh, the author is racist- and he’s a shit writer.”
That latter part is a little harsh, but it’s not without merit. Hemingway wrote this book in a hurry while he was going back and forth between Spain during the civil war and by fuck does it show. As soon as part two shows up there’s an apparent decrease in quality. Hemingway switches from a first-person perspective to an omniscient narrator and gives these bizarre descriptions of established characters that just confuse the reader.
Like Harry Morgan is of course in the beginning of the second part, but Hemingway doesn’t refer to him by name until two or three pages in. All the while referring to him as either “the man” or “the captain” as if he were a new or minor character. At times it feels as if each part was the first draft of the beginning of the book, but because Hemingway rushed it he just jumbled all these different parts together and didn’t bother change the perspective to make it at all consistent.
In part three, everything goes downhill. Hemingway adopts a multi character first person narration- with each chapter focusing on a different character. Now this isn’t to say multiple perspectives from different characters is inherently bad, quite the contrary. When done well multi character perspectives can lead to great novels such as Game of Thrones or the Bluest Eye or at least decent yet forgettable novels such as the Heart is a Lonely Hunter. But when you have an exciting concept such as the life and times of a sea captain turned smuggler, and you choose to focus on a random side character who has no bearance on the main story at all- then that is a problem.
The book opens with a forward from Hemingway stating that there was a lot of talk about his previous book and how certain characters resembled real people and were in fact real people. So in this book he just had to clarify that all the characters and events were fictitious and that any semblance to real people was purely coincidental.
Of course, that’s a crock of shit. In part three there’s this particularly effeminate writer who gets offended by Harry calling his wife a whore. He makes a big show of it all the while his wife is immensely attracted by Harry’s rugged nature and the writer is oblivious to the problem of this, in fact he has such sheer adoration towards her that it borders on blindness. That’s….that’s Fitzgerald– that’s clearly Fitzgerald he’s mocking.
His neurotic wife is obviously Zelda, Fitzgerald’s wife. Hemingway is essentially bemoaning how women love these uber macho, rugged men and how effeminate or weak men such as Fitzgerald can’t compete. Essentially the modernist equivalent of the “Virgin-Chad” meme and the myth of Alpha Males in Human society.
All of this is a lot less substantial when you consider that many women who met Hemingway after reading his works were surprised at how un-macho he seemed to be, one even going so far as to refer to him as “androgynous” while Zelda Fitzgerald went a step further and called him “A pansy with hair on his chest”.
This narrative detour wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t completely ruin the crescendo of the book- which is that Harry plans to take four Cubans back to Havanna after they commit a bank robbery. The bank robbery of course goes south, they end up killing some people- including one of their conspirators and then murder Harry’s first mate, Albert- who was not in on the plan.
So Harry plans to take the Cubans out to sea, he lets one of them steer- knowing that he won’t pay attention to the compass and will get them lost. That buys him time to accomplish his plan. He heads down to the engine and picks up the hidden Tommy Gun he placed there and proceeds to mow down all the Cubans- but of course one of them clocks him in the belly and blows a hole in the engine, making the boat inoperable.
Despite my previous critique of Hemingway’s action scenes, this one was pretty good. The stoic drone of the first-person narrator didn’t take back the value of suspense throughout the action scene. Often Hemingway’s writing can be emotively confusing as he transgresses from calm to suspense at random in the same tone- it’d be like if Mr Rodgers were to talk about butchering a baby in his alluring voice.
But of course, this drama is cut off when we switch back to this boring suburban drama about a writer who cheated on his wife and now she’s leaving him for another man. It’s boring as hell and it doesn’t help that Hemingway can’t write women. He can’t. All his female characters sound like the same melodramatic, overtly devoted housewife who just rambles on incessantly on dumb things.
If there’s ever a female character with even a semblance of a personality, Hemingway wrote her in the intending that she’s a bitch.
So we waste three or four chapters with this depressed, serial adulterer whose wife finally left him and Hemingway wants us to…feel bad for him? I guess? I don’t know, all I know is that this is the most accurate representation of Hemingway’s literal character that he has ever dared immortalise on ink.
All his previous characters have been these stoic, macho know it alls with little to no discernible flaws- the kind of men that Hemingway wants you to think he is. This character though? This is exactly who he really is.
The book ends on a low note, the last four chapters are so pedantic that it feels as if Fitzgerald himself had wrote it. The omniscient narrator switches his attention back and forth between these rich people sleeping on their yachts. Then Harry’s boat is brought in and he dies- everyone is sad at the end.
All in all the book started out well. Hemingway was able to compose this really interesting perspective of a smuggler trying to make ends meet- and if he had just focused on that the book would have been stellar. But he didn’t. Instead he had to go and ruin it with these bizarre descriptions from the omniscient narrator and a subplot that literally does not matter.
There’s some Marxist themes that shadow the book. Harry himself is a working man that guilt’s Albert into working for him by reminding him of the shitty wages he’s making on relief and how crime is the way to go when the rich bastards are beating you down. The Cubans themselves are stealing money solely for funding the Communist revolution in Cuba.
Hemingway divides up the characters between the Haves and the Have Not’s. The man who cheats Harry out of his fee is a Have, Harry himself is a Have Not. The Administration Worker who demands the sea captain he hired to go aboard Harrys ship to arrest him is a Have, the sea captain himself who refuses the order is a Have Not. The Writer who’s biggest worry is sabotaging his own marriage is a Have, Albert is a Have Not.
In conclusion, this book starts off well and possesses a very interesting concept. But due to rushed production or borderline confusion in regard to tone Hemingway sabotages his own book and it goes down hill from page sixty onwards. The only thing I take away from this book is the bizarre scene of a one-armed sea captain fingering his wife with the stub of his missing arm- and now you can too, so don’t bother reading the book.