FOR BOTH HIS MASTER OF ELLIPTICAL English prose and his flamboyant persona, Ernest Hemingway may well be the most influential American author of the 20th century. "I almost wouldn't trust a young novelist — I won't speak for the women here, but for a male novelist — who doesn't imitate Hemingway in his youth," declared the 84-year-old Norman Mailer in the Paris Review.
Mailer's great friend William Kennedy gives us one such imitator in his latest novel, Changó's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes. After reading The Sun Also Rises, Daniel Quinn quits his job as a reporter for the Miami Herald and, intent on following Hemingway's trajectory from journalism to fiction, heads for Cuba. In Havana's Floridita bar, he is befriended by Papa himself, a brawling boozer at war with the world and his own prodigious talents. Challenged to a duel, Kennedy's Hemingway responds portentously: "Tell him if I wanted to die I wouldn't let him do it, I'd do it myself." And when Quinn tracks Fidel down for an interview in the wooded Oriente mountains, El Comandante embellishes the Yankee writer's legend. "I like the way he writes, how he has conversations with himself," the Cuban guerrilla says about Hemingway. "His novel on the Spanish civil war can teach you about battle."
The outsized life of Hemingway — furloughed from World War I for an enigmatic wound; expatriate in literary Paris; author of In Our Time, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and much else, boxer, bullfight aficionado, big-game hunter, deep-sea fisherman, marriage recidivist, Nobel laureate, suicide — provides one of the most enduring narratives of American literary history. Like his countrymen Mailer, Walt Whitman, and Jack London, Hemingway was a master at creating his own myth, and that myth has been catnip to chroniclers of all sorts. By now, anyone who presumes to biographize Hemingway must contend with Carlos Baker, A. E. Hotchner, Kenneth S. Lynn, James Mellow, Jeffrey Meyers, and Michael S. Reynolds, among others who have already staked out some part of the territory.
Sailing into what he calls "the vast, roily, envy-ridden sea of Hemingway studies," Paul Hendrickson weighs in with Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life and Lost, 1934-1961. He adopts as his principle of navigation a concept borrowed from astronomy: averted vision.
"The idea," he explains, "is that sometimes you can see the essence of a thing more clearly if you're not looking at it directly." Looking at the Pilar, the custom-built, 38-foot fishing vessel that Hemingway owned from 1934 until his death in 1961, Hendrickson is able to see things about its skipper not readily apparent to those left on shore. Similarly, in Julian Barnes's 1984 novel Flaubert's Parrot, the narrator's quest to find the stuffed bird that inspired a famous short story results in revelations about Gustave Flaubert, the narrator, and, one assumes, the reader. And in Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain (2000), Michael Paterniti ponders Einstein's life and work while transporting the scientific genius's brain from New Jersey to California. Not every writer adores this technique: Skeptical of synecdoche, Vladimir Nabokov, for one, warned, "The breaking of a wave cannot explain the whole sea."
Nevertheless, faith in the m...