Book Review: To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway

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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12 thoughts on “Book Review: To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway

  1. I started with Blood Meridian. Very hard and superbly written, it made me wonder where he gets all that knowledge. Amongst all that cruelty there is much wisdom. The Border Trilogy gives you a surreal world of 2 young kids becoming men in a harsh and challenging environment: love, commitment, suffering and courage.
    You might have noticed that the strap line of my blog is one of those beautiful phrases that say so much with so few words.
    I watched The Road as between reading the book: two different stories, almost.

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    1. Thank you, Javier. I’ve got All The Pretty Horses waiting on my shelves. It sounds like THe Border Trilogy is up next for me.

      Your blog is lovely. Your photographs are stunning-thank you for sharing these evocative images.

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      1. Hello Julie. I thought about you this past Friday: we were having supper with a few friends and discussing literature in general and favourite in particular. We (men and women) agreed that McCarthy is a men’s writer as all the women did find it out of reach. I hope you are finding it more agreeable.

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  2. This is one of the best reviews I have ever read. I love you passion and honesty. You really get into your books and understand them. I only knew the movie, and having read your review I was amazed at the difference.

    Now that’I’ve buttered you up, with the truth. I am an author and have a book I’d love you to read and let me know what you think. It’s being edited right now. It’s not huge 50,000 words. I can send you some info on it if you like. I would even pay you as I regard your opinion highly. I read most of your reviews. Let me know what you think.

    Cheers

    Rob

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    1. Wow, Rob- I’ll take all the butter I can get, especially if it’s the calorie-free sort!

      Thank you for your kind words and for reading my drivel. I’m honored. Even more so that you would entrust your work to my eyes.

      I’m strictly amateur-hour as a writer and reviewer. It’s one thing to review – under the radar – works whose authors are likely never to see my words. I honestly wouldn’t feel comfortable taking on the baby of someone real. Does that make sense? I’m so flattered that you value my opinion. And you will please let me know where I can find your book when it’s published. I will keep tabs on your website!

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      1. Hi Julie,

        Yes I understand. The book is in editing at the moment, when it’s out I will send you a free e-copy, what format would you like?

        Please, don’t de-value your opinion. I’ve read hundreds of reviews and your are full of life, warmth and meaning. I can really feel a book when you describe it. I’d be honored to have you read my book.

        Cheers

        Rob

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      2. Thank you again. I so look forward to reading your novel. I will send my e-mail to your e-mail! I wish you all the best on this amazing journey. I hope someday to join you on the writer’s road.

        Warm regards,

        Julie

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