As a kid I read hungrily and furtively, devouring comic books and Hardy Boys novels the same way I gobbled Mounds bars and Ring Dings. I borrowed every Albert Payson Terhune novel I could excavate from the dusty stacks of the New York Society Library, and returned them reluctantly. Well, most of them; I finally had to pay the cost of a new edition of Lad: A Dog which I couldn’t bear to part with.
I was a completist, collecting every Tom Swift installment as they arrived at my local bookstore, gloating over the shelf of miniature blue hardback covers like a glutton at a bakery display case. I ordered the back issues of Spider Man and The Fantastic Four that I was forced to miss while imprisoned at summer camp, and used the Camp Killooleet library to scarf every one of Jacques Futrelle’s “Thinking Machine” stories on the sagging shelves of the Main House.
I’ll never forget the thrill down my spine when, after escaping from the impregnable death row “Cell 13” – using only his supreme cognitive powers! – Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen casually remarked that there were three other ways he could have done it. I was tortured by the thought that several new stories in Monsieur Foiurtrelle’s suitcase had sunk to the bottom of the North Atlantic, lost forever when the Titanic hit that iceberg.
The first book and the first list …
I loved all those tales, but none of that inspired me to write. They were elementary school romances, like the first “dates” my kids tried, which mainly consisted of the couple walking home from school a little apart from the rest of their friends, holding hands. The first real crush was a blind date set up by my father. He loved to give reading lists, and the first book on the first list he ever gave me was The Sun Also Rises.
Up until that moment I had assumed books, like the TV shows I loved, were all about plot and nothing else. The Sun Also Rises was about life: fishing in Spain, sending off cables from a shabby European newspaper office, riding in cabs with beautiful women you could never have (I wasn’t sure why at that point; something about a war injury), drinking pernod at café tables set out on the street in Paris. That glamor of that life besotted me. How else could I know that pernod “was a greenish imitation absinthe.
When you add water it turns milky. It tastes like licorice and it has a good uplift, but it drops you just as far.”? I felt like I’d been sipping the stuff myself. That was his precise intention. Years later I found this famous sentence, which originally appeared in an article Hemingway wrote for Esquire in the nineteen-thirties:
“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and the sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.”
That was how The Sun Also Rises felt to me. I remember the fishing trip with Bill Gorton “to Bourgete, in the mountains” more fondly than anything else that happened that summer – riding on the roof of the crowded bus, drinking wine from big leather bags, digging worms in the early morning before the dew dried. And I still quote Bill (as it turned out Hemingway was quoting a very annoyed Ford Madox Ford, on whom Gorton’s character was based): “Irony and pity!” “Direct action – beats legislation.”
My father curated my growing admiration, pointing out “The best introduction of character you’ll ever read” when Lady Brett Ashley arrives at the Bal Musette in Montmartre, at the center of a swirling crowd of gay men.
Five words: “And with them was Brett.”
Of course that passage is rancid with homophobia (Hemingway actually talks about wanting to beat the boys up), just as Albert Payson Terhune was a racist misanthrope who hated everyone and everything but dogs. Those fine points, along with Jake Barnes’ impotence, would clarify themselves later. For the moment it was just life, life itself, being lived on the pages, vividly, sentence by sentence.
I closed the book knowing that was what I wanted to do.
“This story is as flat as a pancake, dear”
It turned out to be a little trickier than a thought. There’s a big engine of loss and grief and National tragedy, class warfare and cultural decline under those seemingly random incidents, and at age twelve the best I could do was having a character walk into an East Side bar and announce that his marriage was over. That I had never been to a bar, kissed a girl, or even witnessed the break-up of a real marriage (I was six months old when my parents divorced) did not faze me in the least. It took Hortense Tyroler, the grand dame of Dalton School English teachers, writing in her razor-cut tiny handwriting on the top of the first page: “This story is flat as a pancake, dear” to make me realize it wasn’t quite as easy as Hemingway made it look.
I’ve learned that lesson many times over in the last fifty years, and I’m still trying to write one phrase as simple and clear and evocative as “the cool early morning feeling of a hot day.” I may never succeed, but my first love remains, affectionate, chastising, undimmed by time, etched as sharply as the day it was written. That’s how the weather was, and still is, and always will be. But my crush on this great book remains bittersweet.
“Oh Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”
And I could have grown up to be another Hemingway!
And Jake responds: “Yes. Isn’t it pretty to think so?”