Tag Archives: Ernest Hemingway

The Portable Son comes out today

Well the day is finally here. My first book of short stories, The Portable Son, has been published by Aqueous Books and is now for sale. I have flipped the switch from someday forthcoming to recently published.

The hard sell: The Portable Son is available at Amazon as paperback and KindleBarnes&Noble.com, and directly from the publisher. It is also for sale at Burke’s Books in Memphis, Tenn., and Lemuria in Jackson, Miss. More brick-and-mortar stores as I line them up.

I can’t believe it has actually happened.

I remember the first time I thought that I wanted to write a book of short stories. I was 20 and a sophomore in college. I was taking an introduction to fiction writing workshop, and the book that did it was The Watch by Rick Bass. I’d had a vague desire to write throughout junior high and high school, and I had written the requisite notebook or two full of deeply impassioned, hormonally drenched poetry. But it wasn’t until this particular workshop and that particular book that I realized what I wanted to do, or that I found a shape in which to write, a model to draft after.

In that book Rick Bass’s writing seemed ideal: he talked about men and women in an unsentimental, masculine way, but he wrote with a lyrical yearning that kept it from being too spare, too much like Hemingway. He wrote about bullfighting and drinking and reckless male desire but without boiling his language down to elliptical fragments. He kept it looser, more musical, and reached for a panoramic level of detail when it came to nature. Another way of saying this is that he wasn’t afraid of an adjective. And he wasn’t afraid of using a dash if he felt like it. And he wasn’t afraid of building up his effects into a long, cumulative paragraph, like a crescendo before the big chorus.

Also in those stories there is a mythic element underneath the surface. The characters, seemingly relatively normal at first glance, are told at a mythical slant. Everything is always on the verge of becoming a tall tale, which paradoxically didn’t make the stories seem magical or fantastic but realistic, more like how I experienced life.

It didn’t hurt that one of the stories, “Cats and Students, Bubbles and Abysses,” was not only about wanting to write but set in my hometown of Jackson, Miss. In that story Bass, who lived in Jackson for a few years when he was a young adult, makes fun of streets I’ve driven, places I’ve been. It was that alchemical fictional recognition: I didn’t know you could write like that about the place I grew up.

I wrote the first couple of stories in The Portable Son while I was in college, though they have changed a good bit since then. The rest of the stories were cobbled together in the intervening years. Going over the final proofs of the book, I was frankly amazed that I had written these stories. They seemed less like pieces I wrote than pieces I found, though I can’t rightly remember the location where I found them.

A lot has happened in the years since I first read that book by Rick Bass: graduation, grad school, marriage, kids, moving, job changes, teaching, not teaching, innumerable bagels, and, of course, car insurance. But I still think fondly of that book of stories and of the idea behind a collection of short stories. The essayist Elif Batuman says somewhere that she thinks that short stories are historically obsolete, that the economic and reading conditions that brought forth their popularity in the late 19th and early 20th century are gone, never to be recovered. I disagree with her, obviously, but not just because I wrote a book of short stories. Because of their brevity, because of their portability, because of the way they visit a make believe world rather than map it (which is what the novel does), short stories seem like a perennially handy way to comprehend life. That is, a short story offers a way of understanding not available in any other arrangement of language. It is a mode of understanding as much as it is a certain page length.

They’re sort of like songs, except you can’t dance to it.

The Heming Way

I realize it’s the 50th anniversary of Hemingway’s death, but this is ridiculous:
A poster with mottos drawn from Hemingway's life
This is the most absurd misinterpretation of Hemingway’s life, much less his value as a “great writer,” and what’s worse is that I think this is how the broader U.S. culture “appreciates” Hemingway. (The previous winner in absurd Hemingway cultural appropriation–Thomasville’s Hemingway Furniture Collection.)

When will people stop looking to Hemingway’s life as some sort of model of uber-manliness and adventure? When will people actually start reading Hemingway? Read something like In Our Time and try to neatly conventionalize how the women and men behave in there or try to ascertain an unequivocal “way to live” from those stories. Have you ever seen a string of stories that embody such an absolute male terror of women and children? Hemingway, from an accumulation of snapshots, may appear confident and husky, an urban woodsman’s wet dream. But the people in his stories are one hot mess and speak of a complex appreciation of human character, not easily posterized.

I realize that celebrity culture always distorts the source text, but this poster seems the latest incarnation of insult. “Appreciate the finer things in life”–do they realize that Hemingway was a drunk? “Live to tell the tale”–do they realize that Hemingway lived right up until he stuck a shotgun in his mouth?

It’s like his persona has completely split from the actual books he wrote, so that there is this free-floating pop cultural Hemingway, himself composed of little metonymies of manliness: guns, big game, sex with nurses, mustaches, and ribald drinking. Not only is it an insult to the legacy of Hemingway; it’s an insult to the concept of manliness. Besides, celebrating the 50th anniversary of his death is just numerology marketing.

Here’s a short poster for an ideal life: don’t be mold, growing on the damp back of cliche.