Steve's Reviews > Islands in the Stream

Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway
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Nov 21, 2009

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bookshelves: fiction
Read in November, 2009

The Most Interesting Man in the World: The Novel(s). I removed Islands in the Stream from my “currently reading” shelf because I wasn’t sure I would ever finish it. The first part, “Bimini,” is the best part of the novel, and could probably have stood alone as a short novel. It tells the story of Thomas Hudson, a somewhat famous painter, and the visit of his three sons. It’s fishing and drinking and eating and story telling, with a tragic ending . Pure Hemingway, with some wonderful passages to return to again and again. What doesn’t work so well as far as this story goes, is the character Roger Davis, a writer friend of Hudson’s. It seems like Hemingway is doing a bit of the Conradian “double” here. Hudson represents a more contemplative type, being a painter, while Roger is more of a two-fisted man of action. I could write a paper on this alone. Put the two of them together, you have the complete package – though Davis seems to have quit writing, or hasn’t written anything worthwhile in some time. One can’t help but feel that the ghost of the terrible novel, Across the River and into the Trees is being exorcised by Hemingway. To my mind, it is exorcised. The creaky sterility of that previous novel is gone, Hemingway is trying new stuff. Truly.

However, in the second part of the book, “Cuba,” he stumbles. But magnificently! This is some of the best bad Hemingway – ever. There’s something ridiculous about an artist (Hudson again) being driven by a chauffeur to a military station, where he is apparently viewed as The Man. (He’s not in the military mind you, and this is World War II.) Hudson has found out that his last son, Tom, has been killed in action. Grieving, he proceeds to get blitzed at a bar, and most of the story is bar talk with friends, and a whore. At one point, while talking with a Cuban prostitute, Hudson recounts his sexual escapades with three Chinese prostitutes! This is before Viagra. Oh, and there’s an earlier recounting of an affair with a princess that is quite romantic, and a bit kinky, as they do what they do while standing on a ship at night. This scene is a reworking of another “standing” moment from the earlier Farewell to Arms. I found this a little sad, probably because I felt Hemingway was basically cannibalizing himself. Whatever, it’s still pretty cool.

Anyway, by the time of the Chinese prostitutes’ adventure/story, an ocean of alcohol has been consumed, and it’s still morning. Out of the blue, Hudson’s first (ex)wife shows up (great noirish entry). She’s evidently some beautiful actress, now serving in the USO. There’s some fine snappy dialogue, for a while at least, but what punctures this encounter is that she doesn't even know her son is now dead (and he’s been dead for a couple of weeks). Hudson, being The Man – and The Most Interesting Man in the World at that, is aware, due to his connections – and importance (and yet he couldn't call on contact her?). Anyway, they drink some wine (!!!), and make love (which would seem virtually impossible at this point). And then suddenly the Call to Action comes, and The Man is off to war. The jaw simply drops at the wonderful, stagey badness of this. Still, all of that said, there is some wonderful writing to admire in this part.

Part three has Hudson pursuing Germans on the islands. Whatever, my interest really started to wane here, due to the fact that I was finding Hudson so unbelievable at this point. Overall, Islands is a mixed bag, but if you’re into Hemingway, a necessary read. I think as a whole it fails, but there’s a lot of good writing to enjoy. The parts are greater than the whole.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim McGarrah A good and, I think accurate, review, Steve. Thanks. I read this book thirty-five years ago after I read Carlos Baker's great biography of Hemingway. If I remember correctly, it was published a decade after Hemingway's death and cobbled together from notes and chapters that were at various stages of completion. It was also an extremely bad movie starring George C. Scott, if my memory serves. I agree with you that it contains the best and worst of Hemingway both. There is a scene when the painter is fishing for marlin with his three sons that, taken as a novella, could arguable be the quintessintial Hemingway textbook on descriptive writing. The disconnect that is palpable when reading it may come from the fact that too many fingers stirred the pie. It's one thing to know a writer intimately, as his family and editors did, and quite another to try and read his mind posthumously regarding revision.

Steve Jim, thanks for stopping by. I've not read the Baker bio (however I recently picked up a copy at a used book store). Your comment regarding the editorial fingers stirring the book really hits home. Taking a step back from the book, one can't help but feel that they were (pretty crudely) trying to give each section an approximate page count, so that it would seem balanced. That may have been Hemingway's intent (it makes sense), but the problem is that you have one fairly polished section (the first, "Bimini"), the second one is a mess, due to Hemingway's ego, and the third section, the hunt of the Germans, which is way too long. All of this was fixable (even the second part, which at heart is meant to be a bridge between the first and third sections) -- but that could of only been done by Hemingway. Given the epic ambition of the book (which is admirable), and where I feel Hemingway was as a writer (in decline), I doubt he could of ever finished it to his satisfaction. Still, I'm glad they released it. Despite its problems, you can still see the great writer swinging for the fences.

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