Booze Hounds Extraordinaire

Willie and Ernesto

Although sometimes mocked, often parodied, Ernest Hemingway’s prose is clean and compact. 

Here is prepubescent Nick Adams, who has just witnessed a Caesarian operation and a simultaneous suicide, headed back to camp after an emergency call with his physician father.

They were seated in the boat, Nick in the stern, his father rowing. The sun was coming up over the hills. A bass jumped, making a circle in the water. Nick trailed his hand in the water. It felt warm in the sharp chill of the morning. 

In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die. 

Prolife: sunrise, a bass jumping, warm water.

Here’s Nick a decade or so later after a stint in the trenches:

The coffee was bitter. Nick laughed. It made a good ending to the story. His mind was starting to work. He knew he could choke it because he was tired enough. He spilled the coffee out of the pot and shook the grounds loose into the fire. He lit a cigarette and went inside the tent. He took off his shoes and trousers, sitting on the blankets, rolled the shoes up inside the trousers for a pillow and got in between the blankets.

Nick’s practicing the art of un-seeing, concentrating on simple actions to shut down synapses so they won’t flash like artillery fire in the darkness of the night. Eight mechanical declarative sentences without introductory clauses or phrases to describe a series of mechanical, mundane actions. Mindfulness to choke off memories.

I wonder how Nick would get along with Quentin Compson, one of William Faulkner’s offspring?

Here’s Quentin in Absalom, Absalom ruminating about the legend of Thomas Stupen’s arrival in Yoknapatawpha:

Out of quiet thunderclap he would abrupt (man-horse-demon) upon a scene peaceful and decorous as a schoolprize water color, faint sulphur-reek still in hair clothes and beard, with grouped behind him his band of wild [racial epithets] ]like beasts half tamed to walk upright like men, in attitudes wild and reposed, and manacled among them the French architect with his air grim, haggard, and tatter-ran. Immobile, bearded, and hand palm-uplifted the horseman sat; behind him the wild blacks and the captive architect huddled quietly, carrying in bloodless paradox the shovels and picks and axes of peaceful conquest. Then in the long unamaze Quentin seemed to watch them overrun suddenly the hundred square miles of tranquil and astonished earth and drag house and formal gardens violently out of the soundless Nothing and clap them down like cards upon a table beneath the up-palm immobile and pontific, creating Sutpen’s Hundred, the Be Sutpen’s Hundred like the oldentime Be Light.

Like Faulkner’s prose, Quentin is overwrought.

Although we don’t know what eventually happens to Nick Adams in his later life, we do know where Quentin’s going to end up, self-drowned in the Charles River. And, of course, we do know what happens to Nick’s alter ego, Ernesto himself, dispatched in Idaho by a self-inflicted shotgun blast.[1]

We in the West insist on judging. Who is the greater author, Hemingway or Faulkner? I would say Hemingway is the better writer; I find his crisp cinematic prose superior to Faulkner’s adjective-laden forays into over-description. They’re working at cross purposes, though; Hemingway wants you peel back the prose that leaves so much unsaid to explore what’s underneath while Faulkner wants you to see and feel the rush of reality as it sweeps past in torrents. 

That said, I believe that Matthew Arnold would agree that Faulkner is the greater author. After all, he created an intricately linked multigenerational population of men and women, flesh and blood, White, Black, and Red, who embody two centuries of history. That’s not to say Hemingway isn’t great. In fact, I can’t think of a more powerful, better crafted story than his “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” – if you want to judge by one piece rather than a body of work.

I happen to admire both immensely and applaud their tragic visions, admire their courage in exploring godless darkness, empathize with their need to self-medicate. 

For me, Hemingway is rum, Faulkner whiskey. It’s Hemingway in the summer, and Faulkner in the winter for me.

Bless their moldering corpses, I say. And yours, too, Mr. James Joyce, another booze hound extraordinaire. 


[1] Faulkner, on the other hand, drank on and on until his 64th year.

2 thoughts on “Booze Hounds Extraordinaire

  1. I think it’s neat that Hemingway believed most of life existed *between the words in a someone’s sentence. An anti-writer of sorts… but he was right, though. Many people will change the direction of their statement multiple times on the fly so they don’t hurt anyone’s feelings. Maybe that’s why -ily adverbs and flowery language were to complex for this style of writing.

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