Wednesday, September 22, 2021

the last book I read

To Have And Have Not by Ernest Hemingway.

Harry Morgan is a man. A man with a boat. A boat with many uses. The use that Harry wants to put it to is taking rich paying customers out on fishing trips between Havana and Key West. The use that quite a few people would like him to put it to is running various forms of contraband between those two locations: rum, guns, people, you name it.

Harry mostly resists the shady stuff, and wisely so as right at the start of the book we encounter him turning down a lucrative offer to transport some men to Florida and the men in question are promptly mown down by gunfire on leaving the bar. So it's dangerous work and best steered clear of. The trouble is, Harry's latest fishing customer, having been granted some fairly generous credit terms by Harry, chooses this moment to jump on the next plane out of Havana without paying, leaving Harry several hundred dollars out of pocket.

Harry has a wife and kids to feed, and times are hard generally as we're in the middle of the Great Depression, so what does he do? It seems he has little choice but to dip a toe into the murky waters of criminal activity. Despite his initial reluctance Harry seems like a natural for this kind of stuff, agreeing to transport some Chinese men from Cuba to Florida but then killing the money man (after the money has been handed over, of course) and putting the men ashore back in Cuba. Some further transporting of various illicit cargo enables Harry to keep his head above water, so to speak, but it's dangerous work and there's always the chance of a mission going tits up and ending in a hail of bullets. Sure enough on a booze-running trip Harry catches a bullet in the arm, makes it back to Key West (after dumping the booze overboard) but has his boat impounded by the US customs and ends up having his arm amputated above the elbow.

Life is tough for Harry, and it's not getting any easier. There are those who are living the high life in the bars of Havana and the marinas of Key West, though, hanging out on their luxury yachts swilling champagne. These people have worries of their own, of course: the progress of their latest love affair, fretting about the possibility of the wife having her own love affair(s), drinking too much, unwelcome scrutiny by the taxman, that sort of thing. Not quite as fundamental to actual day-to-day existence as Harry's, but it keeps them busy nevertheless. 

Harry, meanwhile, is still trying to make a living, a thing made more difficult by not having access to his boat (and by, you know, only having one arm). He borrows a boat from Havana bar-owner Freddy, and agrees to take some Cubans to Key West. It turns out the Cubans are intending to use the boat as a getaway vehicle after robbing a local bank, and they arrive on the boat toting some large guns and in a bit of a hurry, something they emphasise to Harry by shooting his crewman Albert dead. 

As they speed off across the Caribbean, Harry realises that they probably aren't going to pay him for the trip out of their profits from the bank job, and that it's far more likely that on successfully delivering them to their destination he will be the recipient of a hot lead sandwich. Fortunately Harry is a forward-thinking kind of guy and has stashed a Tommy gun in the boat's cabin. Once the boat is ot of sight and earshot of the shore and the Cubans have started to relax and knock back the rum, Harry whips out the Tommy gun and starts blazing away. Unfortunately it's a bit dark and while he successfully ventilates most of the Cubans he only wings the last one, enabling him to shoot Harry in the belly. Having properly dispatched the last Cuban, Harry hauls himself into a chair, points the boat back towards shore and prepares for either a long slow drift back to shore (the gun battle having ruptured the fuel tank) or a long slow bleed to death. 

One of the obvious things to say about To Have And Have Not is what an oddly-structured book it is. Harry's last acts as described above provide a good example: the climactic gun battle with the Cubans is done and dusted by page 130 (of 191); the remainder of the book is principally devoted to the Gordons and the Bradleys and their various inter-marital entanglements, which only intersect with the main narrative (i.e. Harry's story) right at the end, as the coastguard brings the bullet-riddled boat back into harbour (PLOT SPOILER: Harry is just about still alive, but dies). There is an odd disparity of tone between the exciting, desperate life-and-death stuff going on on Harry's boat and the relatively inconsequential rich-people-being-drunken-shits stuff going on elsewhere. No doubt part of that is deliberate (the Gordons et al are the "haves" to Harry's "have not") but the stories don't mesh together in quite the way it seems like they ought to. This makes a bit more sense when you find out it was created by combining a couple of originally separate short stories. One of the reasons that Howard Hawks wanted to change the plot quite a bit when he filmed it in 1944 (see below) was apparently that he thought it was Hemingway's worst novel. I haven't read enough of them to have an opinion, but it's certainly not in the same league as For Whom The Bell Tolls (the only other one I've read is The Old Man And The Sea, which is really an extended short story at best).

I saw the Bogart/Bacall film a long time ago and I can confirm that it bears very little resemblance to the book beyond featuring a guy called Harry (though he spends a lot of the film being called Steve) who has a boat. There were a couple of further film adaptations in the 1950s: The Breaking Point and The Gun Runners, of varying degrees of faithfulness to the book. 

One thing that will certainly have a jarring effect on the 21st-century reader is some of the language used to describe non-white people. A couple of examples below of stuff that would certainly be considered, erm, "problematic" today:

As you can see these sections are in the part of the book that's written in Harry's voice (some sections later are in the third person), so you could say: well, that's just how unreconstructed rufty-tufty 1930s guys would have talked, and you may very well be right. It is hard to see what could be done about it, assuming anyone thought anything should be done. Pulp all remaining copies and never speak of it again? That seems a bit excessive. A trigger warning in the acknowledgements at the front? Eh, maybe. 

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