To Have and Have NotTo Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Florida Keys. 1937. Harry Morgan, husband to a former prostitute, disappointed father, erstwhile deep sea fishing guide. Broke. Desperate. Surrounded by wasted, depressed, angry, hopeless characters. Welcome to Hemingway.

How can a protagonist who refers to blacks as “niggers”, who writes his own moral code with little regard for law or ethics, who regrets his daughters, and who has a dismal outlook on life even on his best days get under your skin? How can a writer, whose phrases are bleak, whose characters are mean, and who has a dismal outlook on life even on his best days make you tremble? Welcome to Hemingway.

When I turned the final page, I couldn’t decide if this was one of the most awful stories I’d read or one of the most brilliant. So, I settled on both as true. The story is dark, wet, brutal, discombobulated. The writing is dark, wet, brutal and freaking amazing. The narrative shifts from Harry as first person narrator, allowing the reader to become intimately connected to the “have-nots”- Harry, his wife and family, his hired-as-needed crew -  to the third person omniscient, forcing us to observe at a distance the “haves”- the idle rich and educated who moor their yachts and slum at the bars with the locals. In between is Harry’s story told in third-person narrative. This manipulation of style breaks the reader from being within the story to observing it, as if to say we’re no longer a part of what Harry is doing, we’re just watching him from a seat off-stage…

Fortunately, the writing is classic Hemingway -  spare and powerful and so, so sad. The scene between Harry and his wife, Marie, is tender and tragic, juxtaposing a black-hearted opportunist with a flawed but loving man. Unfortunately, the writing is classic Hemingway: every character sounds exactly alike, the flow, regardless of point of view, does not change. Although the causes of misery vary between characters, their responses are identical: caustic and wretched. Only Marie Morgan shows spirit and vulnerability. And lest we think Hemingway is getting soft, he cleaves away her dignity in one short scene. At least he leaves her ignorant of the insult.

The disjointed narrative reads like two novellas joined by loosely-intersecting characters and the story suffers from the relentless grind of depravity. There is no redemption, no growth, no character transformation. In the bleak era during which this was written- the Depression- perhaps the tone fit the times.

This was Hemingway’s first long work after an eight-year hiatus. It feels like a giant fuck-you by Hemingway to the literary establishment and to his readers. Although Harry Morgan declares “A man.. one man alone ain’t got…No man alone now… No matter how a man alone ain’t got no bloody–chance.” To Have and Have Not reads very much like a man who has declared himself alone, and not giving a damn.

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