- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 19, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE HEMINGWAY PATROLS: ERNEST HEMINGWAY AND HIS HUNT FOR U-BOATS

By Terry Mort

Scribner, $25, 272 pages

Reviewed by Philip Kopper

If one test of a writer’s skill is to keep the reader turning pages after he guesses the ending, the acid test is to get a reader hooked even though he knows what happens before he opens the book. So it is with the vibrant and readable “Hemingway Patrols: Ernest Hemingway and His Hunt for U-Boats.” Here’s the nut of it: Nothing happens. Read on.

The bard of Kilimanjaro might have crafted such a sentence — whittled a grand sumuppance down to that nub: Nothing happens. Hemingway outfits his boat and patrols the Florida Straits early in World War II. Nothing happens out there, but this account of it is told with graceful language, wise argument, intriguing substance, subtle insight — not Hemingway’s but scholar Terry Mort’s language, argument, substance and insight. As this involves Mr. Machismo, all that nothing happens with bluster, noise and excitement.

For starters, after Japan attacks Pearl Harbor on the other side of the world, Hemingway launches his own war against the Axis in his 38-foot wooden fishing boat, Pilar. (The name may ring a bell; it was his pet name for his second wife, Pauline, and was what he called one of his earthy heroines in “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”) Having witnessed the Spanish civil war and become a vehement anti-fascist, the man of action wants to join the fray as soon as America enters the global conflict.

Living on his trophy farm in Cuba, he persuades the American ambassador in Havana and the FBI chief there (the CIA had not been spawned yet) to let him join the so-called Hooligan Navy, a loose and motley fleet of private boats that did what they could for the war effort.

They couldn’t do much more than perform lookout duty, but our Navy considered it serious business, thought it helped and acknowledged that it was dangerous. (Combatant benefits would be paid to those volunteers who were wounded — and to widows.)

After months of tangling with red tape, Hemingway was issued electronic gear and a fairly crude arsenal of fragmentation grenades and submachine guns. He was assigned an area north of Cuba and proceeded to patrol it, having rehearsed his crew of cronies in a bizarre scenario should they encounter a German submarine. Posing as innocent buddies in a fishing boat (which Pilar was), they would lure the U-boat to the surface, then somehow get close enough to toss grenades down the conning tower and … well, let your imagination finish the script.

If it actually had come to pass, it probably would have been fatal — to Hemingway, his pals and Pilar. U-boats were out there, sinking whatever they encountered from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic.

In fact or in fiction - Mr. Mort cannot be sure — on exactly one occasion, Capt. Hemingway and crew sight what they believe is an unidentified submarine and give chase. But it gets away, if it was there in the first place, and Pilar faithfully returns to its station to perform its tedious duty for months on end into 1943. That’s when nothing happens — as nothing happens when the prizefighter rolls over in his bunk and turns to the wall in “The Killers,” as nothing happens when Santiago outlasts the great marlin, lashes it to his boat and sails home in “The Old Man and the Sea.”

But know this: “The Hemingway Patrols” is a splendid read for those us of a certain age who bore witness as “The Sun Also Rises” and wept after “A Farewell to Arms” and bled during “Death in the Afternoon” and stampeded through the few 100 stories, and visited “Islands in the Stream.” (Full disclosure: I met Hemingway, once, as he neared the summit of his boozy narcissism, and if it wasn’t exactly fun, it was memorable. Later, I wrote part of his obit for another Washington newspaper when we scrambled to meet a deadline after word came that the master of the declarative sentence had taken his own life in Idaho.)

Mr. Mort’s achievement lies in part in his intimate appreciation of his complex subject, doubtless because he studied with Hemingway’s biographer at Princeton, then wrote his thesis on “The Hemingway Hero.” Further, Mr. Mort seems to have gotten inside Hemingway’s head as fisherman, roue and author and into the heads of sundry consorts, particularly Martha Gellhorn, wife du jour during these war years.

Further still, Mr. Mort knows Hemingway’s oeuvre inside and out and honors it for what it is: that piquant product of its time, the heady concoction of action and romance set in exotic places and composed with his signature economy of style.

Finally, Mr. Mort, quite a stylist himself, writes with clarity, a gentle touch and deft choice of words, similes and metaphors. Ms. Gellhorn “was like the submarines her husband would later be searching for — always in need of time to recharge batteries.”

Describing Hemingway as essentially pre-libertarian in his approach to all things political, including the Spanish civil war, Mr. Mort writes, “A person ‘had’ politics. Like a disease. Right or left. Both equally fatal … . Fascism and communism were the twin malignancies of the twentieth century. And both metastasized in Spain.”

It bears mention that Scribner has just issued a revised edition of the posthumous “A Moveable Feast,” this one re-edited by a Hemingway grandson to supplant the version of the unfinished manuscript that Ms. Gellhorn’s successor, Wife IV, Mary Welsh, redacted shortly after the writer’s death. I look forward to it, though it cannot eclipse “The Hemingway Patrols” as a summary biography, for Mr. Mort has written an admirable literary “life” — a critical appreciation of the man and his work as seen through the revealing prism of a few emblematic years.

Philip Kopper, who writes frequently in these pages about history, the arts and the natural world, is our only regular reviewer who was ever pushed into the bullring at Pamplona by Ernest Hemingway.

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