Although Paul Hendrickson's "Hemingway's Boat" received critical acclaim, I resisted the book. Carlos Baker's pioneering biography of Ernest Hemingway, which I read after graduating from high school, is among my all-time favorite books, and I never felt the need to look at any other of the many other lives of the author known for his influential minimalist style. Hendrickson's work sounded appealing, but I doubted whether the focus on Hemingway's fishing cruiser The Pilar could sustain an entire book.
Recently, I decided to try "Hemingway's Boat," and it succeeds in creating a vivid portrait of a complex man. Hendrickson shows how Hemingway's boat, like his writing desk, fulfilled and defined him. His fishing expeditions in the gulf stream off Florida and Cuba gave Hemingway great satisfaction and happiness. As Hendrickson masterfully shows, that halcyon time is tragically lost, with Hemingway's artistic and personal decline ending with his suicide.
When Hemingway acquires his boat in the mid 1930s, he's at the height of his fame. He's still young, dark-haired, thin and handsome. However, his great early novels and stories are already behind him, and critics are already noting his writing falling off in "The Green Hills of Africa," finished during his first days of owning the boat. His personality is settling toward the silly "Papa" personna.
The book is full of literary and sporting lore of the time. Hendrickson wanders off into too-long set pieces; he gives much more than I cared to know about the Brooklyn company that manufactured the boat. He gives detailed vignettes of the often obscure characters drawn into Hemingway's orbit. Once famous literary figures of the time such as John Dos Passos and Archibald MacLeish return to full life. As in other books, we get an appalling look at Hemingway's condescending and bullying treatment of F. Scott Fitzgerald. "Tender Is the Night," now considered one of the great American novels, draws Hemingway's contempt. I wanted to step in and tell Scott not to worry, that he would eventually overcome Hemingway.
Hendrickson also shows Hemingway's tender, generous side, especially with children and aspiring young writers. He's a Falstaffian, outsized character. We see him standing tall in the glorious gulf stream sunlight, scarcely aware of the gathering shadows.