As Bad as It Gets : THE BEST OF BAD HEMINGWAY Choice Entries From the Harry’s Bar & American Grill Imitation Hemingway Competition <i> (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich</i> : <i> $7</i> .<i> 95</i> , paper; <i> 149 pp.)</i> : PAPA AND FIDEL <i> by Karl Alexander (Tor Books: $17.95; 310 pp.) </i>
In the early spring of that year the young books moved across the river and up the mountain where the critic crouched in his sniper’s nest with his word processor, and he felt the malaise. In Papa’s day, he thought, we had typewriters that kicked back satisfyingly at our fingers and sounded like a Weatherby magnum, but these new maquinas kill silently and too smoothly and leave an ache of regret in our wrist tendons. He tried not to think about that.
The critic’s behind itched. It itched from crouching all the time and he feared he might have hemorrhoids, but he knew well that any critic with aficion had to put his best behind forward. He peered through his glasses. The first book had Papa’s name on it and looked like a lion, but then he saw that it was only an old lionskin being carried across the veldt by a troop of monkeys. “The Best of Bad Hemingway.” The critic fired into the air and the monkeys dropped the skin and capered. Their interlinked tails spelled out “Harry’s Bar & American Grill in Century City,” which had sponsored the parody contest for 11 years, ending in 1988.
There were 44 pieces by unknown writers, picked from thousands of submissions. Some were funny. Probably better than their usual stuff, the critic thought. Even to write bad Hemingway they have to imitate his swift, clean style, and that brings discipline. There were nine pieces by famous writers. Most were very funny. E. B. White’s “Across the Street and Into the Grill.” George Plimpton’s “The Snows of Studiofiftyfour.” Wolcott Gibbs. Raymond Chandler. A very short, scatological one by F. Scott Fitzgerald. By this time the critic was laughing too hard to aim. What the hell, he thought. You can’t use a lion processor on monkeys anyway. That’s no good.
But it’s no good either reading them all at once, he thought. Too many monkeys is like too much sex-and-death. It cloys in the sinuses.
Besides, he thought, why Hemingway? It’s been a long time since he dominated American letters, longer still since that style captured the feeling after World War I that all the big words had been discredited . Nada. It fit that subject perfectly, fused with it. But it fit other subjects less well and peeled off and became a mask, behind which Papa seemed to hide even from himself. It’s too serious a style for anything except nada. No wonder people can’t resist spoofing it. Like drawing mustaches on Joan Didion, the critic thought. Besides, it seems easy. Everyone thinks he can do it. Even me.
The malaise came back and the itching, as if he was growing pinfeathers down there, crouching in his nest like some bird of prey. A vulture. The next book was “Papa and Fidel” by Karl Alexander, who wrote “Time After Time” about H. G. Wells and Jack the Ripper. Now Hemingway and Castro. Odd couples. Not a parody this time but an elephant of a novel about the friendship the two didn’t have. Written well enough but in Hemingway’s own terrain, so that a critic could still draw snide comparisons and say it isn’t Papa. OK, I’ll say it, the critic thought. It isn’t Papa. And he shot off one leg.
The elephant staggered but came on. In 1957, at his estate near Havana, Hemingway is sinking into the drunkenness and despair and literary impotence recorded by his biographers. Then he journeys into the Sierra Maestra to meet Castro. A triumphant, if secret, last chapter of his life begins. Papa saves the rebel leader from CIA hit men and writes the “big book” that has long eluded him. His suicide in 1961 is not really a suicide. How nice, the critic thought. How cleverly Alexander has dovetailed the fiction so as not to disturb the known facts. Hemingway himself, that lifelong self-promoter, might approve. But doesn’t a man’s despair belong to him, just like his hemorrhoids? He shot off another leg.
Still the elephant came, humanly on two feet, bearing easily the burden of its research, its affection for Papa (who the biographers say applauded Batista’s overthrow and compared it to what would have happened if the Loyalists had won the Spanish Civil War). Fidel is more doubtful. A genuine idealist, Alexander claims, soured by U.S. intransigence. Still, a vivid picture of Cuba rotten and ripe for revolution. Hunting and fishing and baseball and derring-do. Maybe too much sex-and-death, the critic thought. Like too many monkeys. But a damn good read. Que va. Let it pass.
Then the itching intensified and the Earth seemed to move and the nest rose and swayed so that the critic had to hang on. Had he laid an egg?