Reviewer Mark Brazaitis is the author of three books of fiction, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and Steal My Heart, a novel that won the Maria Thomas Fiction Award given by Peace Corps Writers. His latest book is The Other Language: Poems, winner of the 2008 ABZ Poetry Prize. His short fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, The Sun, Witness, Notre Dame Review, Confrontation, and elsewhere. He is an associate professor of English and directs the Creative Writing Program at West Virginia University.
Hunting Hemingway’s Trout
by Lauri Anderson (Nigeria 1965–67)
North Star Press of St. Cloud Inc.
Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991–93)
IF IMITATION IS THE HIGHEST FORM OF FLATTERY, writing a book in the spirit of an author one admires must be the second highest form.
I think Ernest Hemingway would have been flattered by Hunting Hemingway’s Trout, and not only because it’s a tribute to him (or at least his writerly influence) but because it’s well-written and entertaining. It’s fiction that, especially in its opening story, occasionally reads like memoir, with an appealing intimacy.
Hemingway is everywhere in this book. Let us count the ways (or at least some of them).
Portions of Hemingway’s biography are included in short pieces between longer stories. These pieces have titles like “Hemingway and Women” and “Hemingway and War” and offer insights into his life and work such as the real-life characters on whom he based his fictional characters. Lady Duff Twysden, Anderson (or his narrator) informs us, was a “twice-married alcoholic party-goer and flirt” who “accompanied Hemingway and friends to Spain and later became Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises.”
1) Hemingway is an obsession (or at least a concern) of the characters in the short stories. In the title story, for example, the narrator and his cousin, Toivo, set out to find the river in Hemingway’s short story “Big Two-Hearted River.” Both characters know the story well, but not as well as the narrator of “A Short Unhappy Life” knows the Hemingway story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” A professor, he claims to have read the story five hundred times. Even so, he hasn’t come to a conclusion about the ending. Did Macomber’s wife, Margot, shoot her husband intentionally or was she aiming for a buffalo?
2) Anderson’s writing, no doubt intentionally, sounds a little . . . well . . . Hemingwayesque. The opening to Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”: “It was very late and everyone had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light.” The opening of Anderson’s “By the Eggplants”: “Through my window I watch the September wind pile brown leaves against the base of an adjacent building.” Not only do both stories open with a description of setting (while at the same time introducing a character), but their rhythms are similar.
3) Like Hemingway, Anderson writes about the experiences of Americans abroad. Unlike Hemingway, who died as the Peace Corps was beginning, Anderson writes about the experiences of Peace Corps Volunteers. Lars Olson in “There Is No Smyrna, Only Izmir” believes he’s doing something radical by having his English class in an all-girls school in Turkey read essays by Hemingway. But as one of the Turkish students tells her American friend later, “All of us read those Hemingway pieces years ago. Does he think we’re children? We’re seventeen.”
Hunting Hemingway’s Trout was first published in 1990. It’s back in print in a readable paperback from North Star Press of St. Cloud. While readers who aren’t familiar with Hemingway’s work might find things to like here, it’s true audience is certainly Hemingway fans. The more one knows about Hemingway’s life and works, the greater the appreciation. In a scene in the title story, for example, an old man the two protagonists meet in their hunt for the Big Two-Hearted River recalls a trio of young fishermen who came to test their luck in the nearby waters in 1919. “If I remember right, the one with all the questions was a newspaper man,” says the old man. But Toivo dismisses this: “That couldn’t have been Hemingway. He didn’t write newspaper stuff.” But of course he did, as any Google search on “Hemingway Kansas City Star” will tell you.
Nicholson Baker wrote a funny, self-deprecating homage to John Updike, U & I, which details his obsession with the older master. Anderson’s book is less forthright about its obsession, but it’s similar in spirit. Both works lead us back to the authors who inspired them. And isn’t it about time we picked up A Farewell to Arms again?
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