70 Days With Hemingway And Me

Every Novel, Back to Back, Starting With the First

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Thomas Hudson Has A Lot of Hard-Drinking Friends

August 4th, 2009 · No Comments · Islands in the Stream

I don’t know what to make of Islands In the Stream, the first of three books published after Ernest Hemingway died. I know this much:

1. The protagonist is Thomas Hudson, whom Hemingway introduces early (in the second paragraph) — unlike his style in all previous books where the protagonist’s name is withheld from the reader until much later on — and he is always referred to as Thomas Hudson. Both names. No Tom. No Thomas. Always Thomas Hudson.

2. Thomas Hudson is “a good painter” who lived in a house “built on the highest part of the narrow tongue of land between the harbor and the open sea.” He is divorced with three sons: Tom, David, and Andrew. They are described thus: “The biggest boy was long and dark with Thomas Hudson’s neck and shoulders and the long swimmer’s legs and big feet.” (page 52). That’s Tom, although Hemingway doesn’t call the biggest boy by name until page 54.

“The middle boy always reminded Thomas Hudson of an otter. He had the same color hair as an otter’s fur and it had almost the same texture as that of an underwater animal and he browned all over in a strange dark gold tan” (page 52). That was David, who was also not named until page 54.

“The smallest boy was fair and was built like a pocket battleship. He was a copy of Thomas Hudson, physically, reduced in scale and widened and shortened. His skin freckled when it tanned and he had a humorous face and was born being very old” (page 53). That was Andrew who, like his siblings, was not named immediately. He is named on page 54. I like the description of Andrew best: “…and was born being very old.” That’s a terrific phrase, one very Hemingway-like.

I noticed in the descriptions of his sons that Thomas Hudson gets a bit maudlin, more emotional than Hemingway seemed to in previous books. I’m not sure why that is. I just note it for its own sake.

3. Thomas Hudson drinks a lot, carouses with people who drink even more, witnesses an outbreak of fisticuffs, and is surrounded by a lot of “Negroes” and people who refer to “Negroes.” In short, this appears to be typical Hemingway.

4. Thomas Hudson’s story is told in three parts (Bimini, Cuba, and At Sea) and was edited by Hemingway’s wife, Mary, who wrote in the headnote:

Charles Scribner, Jr. and I worked together preparing this book for publication from Ernest’s original manuscript. Beyond the routine chores of correcting spelling and punctuation, we made some cuts in the manuscript, I feeling that Ernest would surely have made them himself. The book is all Ernest’s. We have added nothing to it.

5. Be that as it may, Thomas Hudson’s story is fragmented and somewhat monotonous. I’ve made it half-way through the book and I’m not seeing much reason to continue. Whereas in The Sun Also Rises, where drinking is a vagrant pastime, a thing to be enjoyed whilst contemplating the futility of life, Islands in the Stream makes drinking seem so, well, foolish. Drinking and threatening to burn down the Commissioner’s home with a flare gun (shades of “Smoke on the Water”!), drinking and getting in a vicious fight, drinking and arguing with one another. Drinking, drinking, drinking. The banter isn’t even witty. Thomas Hudson and his friends just drink and talk.

As I suspected Islands in the Stream seems to be a book Ernie didn’t publish for a reason. And, in fact, according to the book Ernest Hemingway A to Z: The Essential Reference to the Life and Work written by Charles M. Oliver, Islands in the Stream:

Hemingway’s original plan was to include most or all of the novel in a three-volume novel of the sea, the air, and the land. The Old Man and the Sea was to be the first of a three-part novel of the sea, and manuscripts for which he used “Sea Novel” as a working title were to be included in parts two and three; those manuscripts were put together as Islands in the Stream. The “air” and “land” novels were never written. (page 170)

So what does that leave me with here?

A book that feels more like a collection of abandoned avenues of thought. Like the many hand-car tracks in an old mine. Only these don’t go all the way to the mine. Some veer off. Some arrive at a dead end.

I’ll keep reading Islands in the Stream until the end of today. But it doesn’t feel historic. Or important. Or even interesting. It just feels unfinished.

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