Saturday, July 02, 2011

Book Review: Islands in the Stream

Okay, this time I've actually finished Ernest Hemingway's Islands in the Stream, so now I'm ready to make a full report, such as it is.

Let me start with this little English major insight: this book confirmed for me that, aside from one or two books (A Moveable Feast, The Sun Also Rises), I much prefer Hemingway as a short fiction writer. Hemingway's a stoic moralist, and his flat, unadorned style sometimes becomes akin to a sleeping pill, which is not a good reaction if you want people to read your books for entertainment purposes.

So what do we have here? Islands in the Stream is one of those manuscripts that was found and released after E.H.'s death by suicide in 1961 and was released in 1970. It is the story of a painter, Thomas Hudson, and his social and military adventures in the Caribbean prior to and during World War II. The book is divided into three parts: Bimini, Cuba, and At Sea. Part I is set, oddly enough, on the Bahamian island of Bimini prior to the war. Hudson (who E.H. always refers to by his first and last names for some reason) has been living the life of a bachelor, artist, and drinker and is looking forward to hosting his three sons, two by a previous wife, one by another. As a reader, I would have to say that this is the best part of the book. Hemingway takes the most time describing his characters and their surroundings, and while Thomas Hudson ruminates occasionally about his failed relationships with his three sons' mothers, his relationship with the boys is loving and believable. The best "scene" of the book runs many pages--a long-drawn-out description of one of Hudson's boys attempting to land a big fish in the waters off Bimini. The scene is great in the way it depicts the dialogue, the passage of time, and the descriptions of the act of deep-sea fishing. I still don't WANT to do it, but Hemingway manages to convey the mystery and excitement of the experience in a way that made me at least curious about it, or concerned for the character's fate. The section closes with the boys flying off to their respective schools or mothers, and Hudson being left as a lonely bachelor again.

Part II, Cuba, finds Thomas Hudson in and around Havana, drunk and miserable and again wallowing in regret over the various losses in his life (I won't throw away too many spoilers here, but they are deep and shocking to the reader). Hudson is assigned to some sort of military duty, but we're not sure what. All we know is that he and his crew are on shore leave, and most of them are drinking heavily to forget the various hurts in their lives. What's painfully obvious about Hudson is that he is at loose ends ashore and is no longer painting. The section ends with the mother of Hudson's eldest son Tom, who was the one great love of his life. They are simultaneously still in love with each other and impossible to each other, with each character's flaws and irritating behaviors painfully obvious to them both and to the reader. The section concludes with Hudson being called back to action without coming to any sort of resolution with Tom's mother.

Part III, At Sea, shows us Thomas Hudson (echoing Hemingway himself) at war. He has armed his fishing boat with a variety of light weapons and has himself and his rough-hewn crew patrolling the Cuban coast, watching for German submarines. The primary action of the book is the pursuit of a grounded German sub crew by Hudson's crew and the errors and losses they incur along the way.

This is a book about losses: personal and professional. In 1941, Hemingway himself (and thus Hudson) would have been around my age now, so perhaps I could relate to this character better than most. He is dealing with the regrets and habits of middle age, like drowning oneself in work or duty to avoid more unpleasant thoughts. And yet there is something innately hollow about Thomas Hudson. He is a father, but not a family man. He is a professional, but he works alone. He is a semi-military man, but he doesn't take much stock in military virtues like loyalty. As I noted, Hemingway himself armed a cabin cruiser to go sub hunting after World War II broke out, but was more of a nuisance than an effective military man. When that idea didn't pan out, he eventually went back to reporting as a war correspondent. The life of Hemingway is reflected in Thomas Hudson's background as well: cabins in Montana, artistic living in Paris and Spain, hunting in Africa.

It's as though all he did was swap his own name and occupation to create Hudson and decided to put that "person" into the worst personal situations he could find. I've done literary exercises like that as well, and the motivation (at least in my case) is this: if you've lived a relatively good, safe, and comfortable life--neither E.H. nor I has seen war as combatants--you find yourself wondering how you'd face really bad situations if put to the test. This is Hemingway's answer, and it's a sad, but typical one. Hemingway is a stoic, at least as read through the character of Thomas Hudson.

Lin, one of my readers, pointed me to this article about "Papa" Hemingway, as well as the E.H. story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." Lin thinks I'm underestimating E.H., and that's entirely possible. If I "channel" any writer when doing tech writing it's Hemingway. His prose is bald, spare, including only as much detail as he thinks is necessary to get his point across. The problem is, sometimes he (and I) could use a few more words, especially when it comes to describing non-technical subjects. Live and learn.

The question becomes: is this a good book? I guess it depends on what you're looking for. If you're a middle-aged male, like this reviewer, and you're wondering how you might take it if the things that matter most to you are taken away from you, then perhaps this is a book worth reading. That isn't to say you'll enjoy the experience, or that you'll learn from it. Perhaps you will. Perhaps I'm underestimating this book. What sort of book would I write, given the things I care about? It might be worth shifting my free-time writing to take a look.

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