Published May 27, 2011
Reviewed July 31, 2011
In my time as a book critic, I’ve heard a lot of arguments about the dominance of white male authors in the popular culture – and if you had to pick the male-est of those authors, it would without question be Ernest Hemingway. Famous in literary circles for his sparse prose, tragically flawed protagonists and views on the generations lost from the war, Hemingway is also an author repeatedly criticized as overly masculine, misogynistic and homophobic. Still others have accused the Hemingway image as being a construction entirely apart from the man himself, with F. Scott. Fitzgerald biographer Matthew J. Bruccoli declaring the man his own greatest fictional creation.
But is that really such a bad thing? Not according to Marty Beckerman, who leaps to Papa’s defense in his parody/self-help book “The Heming Way.” Compared to the way we live today in our world of wireless Internet connections and malt beverages, the attitudes of Hemingway – a man who drank eight different types of alcohol for breakfast, sought the great adrenaline rush of hunting both beasts and men, and was so proud of his way of life that he was the only one who could end it – seems a marvelous alternative. In mapping these extremes, Beckerman not only delivers a brief and hilarious biography of the author but artfully twists it into a critique on modern society.
Beckerman lays out the case for Hemingway as “a great writer, a great hunter, a great fisherman, a great womanizer, a great drunkard, and a great man – but mostly a great drunkard” by regaling the reader with tales of the author’s exploits. He tells you how to hunt like Hemingway (pick your guns well, cook what you kill, don’t bring women along), how to drink like Hemingway (on safari, in wartime, and with your hungover ten-year-old son) and how to pursue women like Hemingway (marry often, swapping out as their psycho levels rise and they lose their taste for your beard and vomiting friends).
The humor here comes from the extremity of viewpoints presented, as well as how over-the-top Beckerman gets in embracing those viewpoints. He presents Hemingway in his own words and then almost immediately illustrates the flaws in those words with even more quotes, but never dares to question them even as they grow absurd. Of course Hemingway’s drinking burdened him with massive health problems, but how else could he reach such heights as shooting himself in the legs during a fishing trip? And of course Papa’s “outward misogyny” was just an offshoot of the harsh realities of war, not repressed homosexuality! (So what if there are eight or ten quotes to the contrary, the man’s balls overwhelm those!)
It would be easy to dismiss the book as nothing but a list of Hemingway jibes, but Beckerman’s commitment to the format is impressive. Much as he did in the excellent 2008 political dissection “Dumbocracy,” Beckerman backs up his jokes with considerable research, regularly sourcing Hemingway’s own writing as well as a variety of biographies and scholarly studies. The format, reminiscent of a Cracked article, also earns its laughs by inserting some biting comments underneath Hemingway photos periodically inserted into the text. (Particular favorite: Hemingway’s quote “Love is just another dirty lie” followed immediately with his wedding photo and the tip “Do not include the previous quote in your vows.)
And even as parody, there’s a sense that it might be sitting on something deeper. that Particularly as the book heads toward the end, there’s an odd seriousness that emerges from the parody, almost a rant taking over as our modern sense of safety is compared to Hemingway’s style. In fact, in some passages, it almost seems like he’s seriously viewing that style as the lesser of two evils:
“And we’ve become rich in the currency of cowardice. We have so many things and so few experiences. We are desperate to live as long as possible, not as large as possible. We are so afraid to say goodbye to the world that we never say hello. We are numbed in our high-def, wi-fi cocoons, eager for materialistic possessions – the newest, fastest, shiniest gadgets – instead of a fitting end to a life well-lived. If Papa hadn’t killed himself out of despair in 1961, he would kill himself out of disgust today.”
It’s impossible to say what Papa would have thought of this book (though based on history, he’d likely knock the author on his back with one punch) but the end result would probably have involved a laugh and six shared drinks. Beckerman has kicked a breath of fresh air into the Hemingway mythos fifty years after Papa ended his life, and “The Heming Way” should appeal to fans of its source material and anyone looking for a good joke. It’s well-researched, incredibly funny, and just the impetus you’ve been looking for to bring Wild Turkey and six grenades on your next fishing trip.