Ernest Hemingway took himself so seriously that those who write about him seldom feel comfortable showing him in a comic light. And certainly there's nothing obviously funny about a drunken, jealousy-prone, mother-despising genius who brought wondrous new energy to the English language before blowing his brains out. But the Canadian side of his story contains enough absurdity to shift it from tragedy to comedy.
For starters, he came to Toronto as the male version of a governess, hired to babysit a young fellow whose rich parents believed he needed a masculine role model. Moreover, Hemingway soon realized he had landed in a Belfast-like city whose pretensions he couldn't possibly share. In retrospect his situation sounds like farce, which makes it natural that Eric Wright's new comic novel, The Hemingway Caper (Dundurn Press), should circle delightfully around relics of Hemingway's time in 1920s Toronto.
The author of 18 earlier books, most of them mysteries, Wright assigns his narrator, Joe Barley, to uncover stolen manuscripts that Hemingway produced during his servitude at The Toronto Star. In that era he famously made a friend of Morley Callaghan and an enemy of the managing editor, H.C. Hindmarsh, who considered it his duty to knock the conceit out of this young pup. (Hindmarsh's loyal son later said that Dad felt "a man like that can be very disturbing in an organization.")
Having seriously annoyed his old Star colleagues by swiftly becoming a titan of 20th-century literature, Hemingway also lodged himself permanently in Canada's literary mythology. Ten years ago the myth turned up in the Toronto police news when someone broke into David Mason's antiquarian bookstore on Queen Street West and stole manuscripts and books, said to be worth about $250,000, most of them dealing with the renowned boxing match between Hemingway and Callaghan in 1929 Paris.
Legend has turned that fight into a Homeric epic, but the passage of years has made it look increasingly silly. F. Scott Fitzgerald, holding the stopwatch, apparently lost track of time and let a round go four minutes instead of two, allowing Callaghan to knock Hemingway to the floor. Newspaper accounts made it worse by calling it a knockout, and Hemingway, who never lacked for vanity, went into a snit that lasted for eternity. In March on CBC Television, Hemingway vs Callaghan, directed by Michael DeCarlo, tried to build that anecdote into a two-part, four-hour miniseries, which started off well but over-stretched a thin story and exhausted the audience's patience before the third hour was over (at half that length it might have been twice as good). The fight also figured in a recent CBC documentary on Callaghan's life.
In The Hemingway Caper, Wright indicates his own position by beginning and ending with a parody of Hemingway's style. The manuscripts Barley pursues aren't the papers stolen from Mason, but that notorious break-in echoes through Wright's story (Mason served Wright as technical advisor on book-selling protocols). Barley, who starred in one earlier book, The Kidnapping of Rosie Dawn, does his detecting part-time. He spends most of his days serving in the vast army of sessional college lecturers, low-paid professors with no security and no rights, who do for universities what coolies once did for sugar plantations; i.e., the work. Barley moonlights as a private eye because he needs extra cash.
This means Wright can keep several stories running simultaneously. As a teacher Barley plays a minor-league Machiavelli in labyrinthine machinations over choosing a new English department chairman at Hambleton College. As a private dick he spies on a client's apparently adulterous husband and stumbles on the Hemingway manuscript mystery. At the same time Joe lives his personal life in a state of romantic confusion. Naturally, the plots play off each other, the snoop story running parallel to Joe's own life. While uncovering signs that the man he's stalking has been "bonking his wife's sister," Joe teeters on the verge of making that same notoriously dangerous mistake himself.
This is not a novel for the sleepy; Doze off for 30 seconds and you find Wright has moved you over to a different plot. But he maintains a firm grip on the material and demonstrates an old master's ability to juggle several narrative balls at once without letting us know, till quite late in the performance, which of them will eventually land with the most resounding force. As the layered plot moves forward, Wright reminds me of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the blind jazz virtuoso who figured out how to play alto, tenor and soprano saxophones simultaneously, producing, all by himself, exotic harmonies.
Wright doesn't demand that Barley stay rigidly within the narrative, and much of the book's charm falls in the margins of his thinking. He utters slightly eccentric literary views ("E.M. Forster, a novelist whose disfiguring elitism renders his stories implausible"), nearly gets into a fist fight with a colleague over W.H. Auden, and brings a delicate sense of historic timing to the discussion of vocabulary ("it's time to drop the word oxymoron before we find it in beer ads"). He also identifies styles of speech with the precision of a Professor Higgins: "Her accent was English, Cheltenham Ladies College, I would think, cut glass ..." I like Barley and hope to hear more of him.
Ideally, Hemingway himself should also appear as a comic character in other books by other writers. It's not hard to imagine a novel with the working title Prisoner of Toronto. It would need to be only half-invented, since Hemingway's sardonic views of Toronto and Torontonians are on record. He wrote to Sylvia Beach in Paris that he and his wife were "the only nice people" in this dreadful country, and in a letter to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas he said: "What bothers me is why with my fine intelligence I ever came out here." We also have the poem he wrote, I Like Canadians, in which he said "They think Art has been exaggerated/But they are wonderful on ice skates" and "They are all in a hurry to get home to supper/And their radio sets." Europe had quickly turned the lad from Oak Park, Ill., into a country snob. In his reactions to Canada, and Canada's to him, there's surely the seed of rich comedy.