- - Thursday, December 29, 2011

By Paul Hendrickson
Alfred A. Knopf, $30, 531 pages

In 1987, The Washington Post published a three-part series on the sons of Ernest Hemingway, written by then-staff writer Paul Hendrickson. During the intervening decades and several books later, the Hemingways continued to germinate in the author’s mind. Driven by a genuine curiosity and the energy found in the best of reporters and biographers, Mr. Hendrickson pored over photos, home movies and audio recordings, relentlessly interviewing anyone who had any connection to his subject.

“Hemingway’s Boat” focuses on the last 27 years of Ernest Hemingway’s life, from the purchase of his seagoing fishing boat in May 1934 to his suicide in 1961. The boat, which Hemingway christened Pilar (his favorite Spanish name), is used as a storytelling vehicle, showing how it anchored Hemingway through three wives, the Nobel Prize and “all his ruin.” When he bought Pilar, Hemingway was at the height of youth and professional glory; in 1961, in exile from Cuba, he was prematurely old and depressed, unable to compose a single sentence.

As Mr. Hendrickson explains, this is not a biography of Hemingway in the conventional sense. Those already exist, including the monumental “Ernest Hemingway, A Life Story,” by Carlos Baker. What he has given us is “an interpretation, an evocation, with other lives streaming in,” about fishing, friendship, fatherhood, the love of water, what it means to be masculine in our culture “and the damnable way our demons seem to end up always following us.”

Has Mr. Hendrickson succeeded? Yes and no.

Mr. Hendrickson’s 1987 Washington Post articles on Hemingway’s three sons (“Papa’s Boys”) were lyrical and evocative. Written economically yet poetically, they seemed the logical springboard for an expanded version of the topic. As it is, the one character who makes the greatest impact in “Hemingway’s Boat” is not our famed protagonist, but Ernest Hemingway’s youngest son, Gregory, whose tortured life leaps from the main narrative.

“Gigi” (as Gregory called himself) is a strong crosscurrent in Ernest Hemingway’s life. Mr. Hendrickson purposely departs from the main frame to tell this son’s story, zigzagging with “loop-arounds and time bends,” eventually leading his narrative to Sunday morning, July 2, 1961, when Ernest Hemingway moves past his sleeping wife, pads down the stairs, bends over a 12-gauge Boss shotgun (“as you might bend over a water fountain”) and blows his brains out. Told with chilling detail and great sympathy, the author’s suicide remains the most moving chapter of the book.

The second person to jump off the pages is Mr. Hendrickson himself. The author drifts in and out of the narrative like a self-conscious, too-chatty guide, nattering on about his methodology and research (continued in his “Essay on Sources”), endlessly speculating over questions no biographer would be able to answer. To his credit, Mr. Hendrickson never uses the first person in a self-aggrandizing manner. But here it is employed so repetitiously it becomes a distraction. Mr. Hendrickson’s literary search for Hemingway is similar in its obsessive nature to that of Ian Hamilton for J.D. Salinger.

Chapters are separated by italicized interludes. Instead of furthering the narrative or evoking another dimension to the story - as John Steinbeck accomplishes in “The Grapes of Wrath” or Edmund Morris in “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” - these do not differ stylistically or thematically from other ruminations shared throughout the book.

And therein lies the rub. Unlike James R. Mellow, whose literary biographies of the Lost Generation (including Hemingway) combined artistry and critical acumen with just enough painterly brushstrokes to leave us with, as he put it, “the texture of a life,” Mr. Hendrickson overdoes it. Hemingway loved to fish and shoot; he described his exploits on Pilar for Esquire. Mr. Hendrickson takes this to a new level, listing the number and weight of various fish, making me suspect that in his hunt for fresh material, the author delved too long in the Pilar logbook.

As Mr. Hendrickson writes, Hemingway’s life has been examined by so many scholars, respected biographers, hangers-on and doctoral students desperate for dissertation topics, with so many experts contradicting one another and giving “daffy” psychological explanations, “that I feel sometimes we have lost all sense of who the man really was.”

But I never get that sense, making me wish this skillful and talented author had been more judiciously edited. For what we have is not “Hemingway’s Boat” but “Hendrickson’s Boat,” and the vessel is a bit leaky.

• Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast” (Oxford University Press, 2007).

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