When you get right down to it, if I had to name one favorite book, I’d have to strongly consider In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway. It’s intimidating to even try and write about Hemingway and this particular title. What to say that hasn’t already been said about a book that launched the reputation and career of a titan like Hemingway? Not much, but I can mention what the book means to me, and since I have at least five Hemingway posts in me, I should start at with the first.
Before getting about the book, there’s one thing to put down on the table. The name Hemingway is likely to conjure up a very specific idea of the man and his work, one that I feel is overly simplistic and off the mark. Mention Hemingway and you’re likely to think: beard, bullfighting, violent, and hard-boiled machismo. While possibly done with good intent, contests like Bad Hemingway Writing and Hemingway Look-a-Like contests create a caricature of a great writer. How come no one shows up at a Look-a-like contest of when Hemingway was 25, or 30? Undeniably throughout his work there is a lot of violence, not-too-kind things done to animals (and men), and that’s all in In Our Time as it should be. I mean, World War I ended six years earlier and completely transformed the art world. But when I think of Hemingway I think of someone who might have the toughened exterior informed by the experience of World War I, but who is internally painfully sensitive and with a deep and universal desire for love. In fact, I don’t know any writer who has written about being in love the way Hemingway consistently did throughout his work. His short stories and in novels The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Garden of Eden, all depict passionate love stories, more or less. Other stories involve loves of other kinds, between fathers and sons, friendships old and young, or brothers in war.
Regarding In our Time, where this book takes you in 157 pages, and the economy in which it does, is astounding. Stories are set before and after World War I in Smyrna, the Champagne region of France, upper Michigan, outside Adrianople, Greece, France, Italy, Oklahoma, Kansas City, Spain, and Paris. You are a boy in Michigan, a soldier witness to evacuations, spectators of bull fights, soldiers in trenches, newlyweds fishing in Italy, a boy in Paris, a young man breaking up with a girl you love and getting horribly drunk over it during a storm. In Our Time feels like four or five novels condensed into one, and considering the geography and cross section of life it covers (of America and Europe anyway) the title is boldly apt.
This particular Scribner Classics edition was given to me on my 18th birthday by my brother. Or I’m pretty sure anyway. Other than the cultural absorption and of course watching Spencer Tracy in The Old Man and the Sea, In Our Time was my first introduction to reading Hemingway. There are at least five perfectly good reasons why this book was right up my alley in a way I had not encountered before:
1) My family used to go drive up through Michigan and into Canada to go fishing so here were stories about experiences I myself had had as a boy in those woods and on those lakes. 2) I always had a fascination with World War I and All Quiet on the Western Front was a favorite book of mine that I had read only a year before. 3) The stories “The End of Something” and “The Three-Day Blow” are about breaking up with a girl you love, and at least partially regretting it—familiar territory for boys in high school. 4) I wanted to be a writer, and like thousands before me and after, wanted to write stories with the same emotional impact that Hemingway did in this book. 5) I loved to fish, and I found it thrilling that such an activity could be material for works of art.
Besides the inter-chapters which are paragraph-long brilliant stories themselves, the story I could read over and over is “My Old Man.” “Big Two-Hearted River” (parts I & II) may be more famous, but for my money, “My Old Man” is truly a great story. It is about a boy and his racehorse-riding father living in France, getting in shape for racing and ultimately screwing over men who fix races. French racing tracks, Paris, and the love of a father through the eyes of a boy during one of Paris’ Golden Ages, what more could you want?
Generations of young writers will forever be jealous of what Hemingway accomplished at 25 years old with his first published book, changing writing style for decades. The pendulum may have swung back towards a longer, more descriptive style, but whenever I re-read Hemingway I am always in awe of the painstaking attention to the craft of writing his stories exhibit. Hemingway to me is the perfect storm of brilliant talent, an incredible dedication to crafting perfect prose, and born with a genius-level emotional I.Q. To pass him off as a certain type of macho personality would be to miss out on a truly great writer.
Want a beer to go with In Our Time? Have to go with the aptly named Two-Hearted India Pale Ale by Bells Brewery in Kalamazoo, MI. Bell’s is a great story, and has a history of brewing in Michigan back to the 1980’s. I’ve had a few of their beers I liked and you’re likely to find them in better stores. Two-Hearted IPA is a very good IPA, apparently using only Centennial hops. Yesterday at my favorite beer bar, Hamilton’s in San Diego, I had their Two-Hearted IPA and also their Lager of the Lakes, a Bohemian Pilsner I didn’t think much of. I found it lacking the pronounced noble hop character of Czech Pils, and if you’re going to call it a Bohemian Pilsner… but still a great brewery with a great lineup of beers. Bonus, it was keep the glass night!