Wednesday, June 30, 2010

To Have and Have Not (Ernest Hemingway) (4.5/10.0)

To Have and Have NotTo Have and Have Not is the kind of book that you can barely believe was penned by Ernest Hemingway. This literary giant wrote many a beautiful thing in his day and no matter what terrible things he may have written between his several masterpieces the triumph of his genius cannot be erased. But this book comes as close as any will.

To Have and Have Not was Hemingway’s most ambitious literary endeavor by a long-shot. And he fails spectacularly. It’s a story about a smuggler and his family in Key West, which attempts to dissect the socio-economic injustices of Depression-era United States. This is no easy subject for certain, and his legacy would have been the better for not having attempting the feat. And yet, there is something admirable in Hemingway’s attempt even if it does make for a miserable read.

The story is disjointed in terms of both time and structure. It’s more a sequence of vignettes that fail to add up to a whole with a string of dead-end tangents around every page. When Hemingway broaches the greater social issues of the ‘haves and have-nots’ as the title suggests, there’s little point or connection to the plot. The examination is superficial, boring, and in the end sheds very light on the real issues. On top of that, it might just be the most extensive collection of awful metaphors ever published. Hardly a paragraph goes by without a clunker of a metaphor jumping off the page to stab the reader in his or her brain.

The most interesting parts of the story are the colorful scenes at various Key West watering holes, which Hemingway paints to perfection. These are no doubt well-researched, first-hand accounts of the Key West bar scene and its many colorful characters, but they serve no real purpose in the story other than to offer a break from the tired language of the rest of the book.

Worst of all, it’s impossible to like any of the characters. It’s almost as if Hemingway went out of his way to make his characters unappealing. And his attempts to add dimension to these figures simply gives the reader more reasons not to like them.

When Hemingway is at his best, he is king. When he’s at his worst, his writing makes L. Ron Hubbard look like Shakespeare. And after reading To Have and Have Not, even a TV Guide will look like breathtaking literature. In short, To Have and Have Not read this book, I’d much rather have not.

If you do give it a read, try and forget about it quickly. Dwell instead on A Farewell to Arms or The Sun Also Rises. This is the Hemingway that we know and love.

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