This book has been inn my head for a few weeks now. Ever since I’ve read it, it’s been – not nagging at me, that sounds negative, but loitering like an affectionate drunk. I read AE Hotchner’s Papa Hemingway a few years ago (despite having only read The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway himself) so I had an idea of the bare bones of the Hemingway story (think Orson Welles – roaring talent, somewhat squandered by philandering and booze). After reading Jason’s book, I went away and watched the Ken Burns’ Hemingway doc (which is every bit as good as his 10 part Vietnam doc) and then I went back and read Good Night, Hem again.
What all of this did was – despite having read Jason, having followed his anthropomorphised literary and genre high jinks over the course of however many books – confirm to me that Good Night, Hem feels ever so slightly like a step in a slightly different direction. We know that Jason likes his literary flights of fancy (Hemingway has even appeared in a Jason book before, The Left Bank Gang, which also featured Fitzgerald, Pound and Joyce) and we know that Jason is playful and subtle when it comes to weaving in his research to justify those flights of fancy but – here – it feels ever so slightly next level.
The book is split into three sections, set at three different points in Hemingway’s life: we get the Parisian Hem (when he said he was poor when he was in fact living the high life thanks to his first wife’s wealthy uncle), then we get the WWII post Martha Hem (Martha Gelhorn, his third wife, is unnamed here, she is merely ‘that bitch’ – which is what Hemingway himself no doubt called her, on a great many occasions) and finally the older, Cuba-residing Hem. In the background, we have minor details, easy to miss, that demonstrate Jason knows his stuff. Take the presence of Loeb as a for instance (a peripheral character here, Loeb was part of Hemingway’s Paris group but later crudely caricatured in The Sun Also Rises – the anti-Semitism on display in that book is one of the great many hard-to-reconcile Hemingway behaviours – hard to reconcile if you want to hero worship that is, you can always just accept that people are complicated and can be both good and bad and move on). Jason gives us enough to see that Loeb was not a Hemingway favourite.
But this is not biography. This is Jason. And so, in part one and part three, we have Hemingway interacting with Athos, the third musketeer (who Jason readers will recognise from The Last Musketeer and Athos in America, a book in which Athos was 400 years old – he’s older here). The presence of Athos is what makes Good Night, Hem so (goddamn) interesting. We know that Hemingway lied and mythologised himself until the character of Hemingway became, essentially, a big fish that swallowed the actual Hemingway. Here, Hemingway gets to interact with a character who is all mythology, a character who also has suicidal thoughts, who also has big stories to tell, who can also be heroic, who also jumps into love like a bomber, who lives life to the full. And then, lest we think Jason is starting to take himself too seriously, he also has Hem (who we know led a gang of resistance fighters in WWII and got himself blown up twice) do a sort of version of Inglorious Basterds (reuniting Jason with the Hitler of I Killed Adolf Hitler).
All told, it’s a hell of a lot of fun but it’s also tremendously thoughtful and sincere too. We might even go so far as to claim it’s our favourite Jason to date. Which, given how much pleasure Jason has provided us with over the years, is high praise indeed.
Any Cop?: We’d recommend you watch the Ken Burns doc first, if you haven’t already. If you have watched the doc and you’re in need of another Hemingway fix, this is a blast. If you’re a Jason fan, you’re already on the train, am I right?