Before I started reading this book, I browsed online for a few reviews and saw that many people consider To Have and Have Not as Hemingway’s worst book. So I went into this book with a considerable amount of trepidation thinking it’s going to be dense and unreadable.
I needn’t have worried, I was in the hands of a master.
While I understand the reasons for the bad reviews, I think Hemingway is such a great author that even his worst books are class acts.
So what’s the book about?
The story is set during the time of the great depression. Harry Morgan is the typical macho Hemingway hero. He makes ends meet by ferrying dubious people and goods between Cuba and the Florida keys in his boat.
As his situation becomes more desperate, he takes more risks gambling against all odds on the hopes of getting a windfall.
His life is contrasted against the life of two rich couples who hang around drinking in the bars Harry frequents. These people have no money woes, however, that doesn’t mean their life is happy. Very soon we learn that though they seem to have a lot, when it comes to personal happiness, they have very little indeed.
For a classic, this book is extremely readable and fast-paced. The story opens with a fusillade of bullets and closes with another.
The first part of the book is action-packed, very noir-ish in style. The second part of the book is a little random where Hemingway details one incident in Harry Morgan’s life. The third part is the meat of the book. Here Hemingway fills out a bit of Morgan’s back story and makes him someone we can sympathize with (he comes across quite unlikable in the earlier sections of the book).
I loved how tenderly Hemingway drew out his relationship with his wife and contrasted that relationship with the rich couples who hang around in the bars he frequents.
If I have a complaint with the book, it’s the way the three parts of the book come together in a very disjointed way, almost like 3 short stories. However, that is something easily overlooked.
What’s hard to stomach is the terrible racism. How is it possible to have a protagonist who slights other people so badly? An alcoholic is a rummy, a black is a nigger, and don’t even get me started on his thoughts on Cubans and Chinese. It’s not just the name, it’s the way he stereotypes them like blacks are lazy, and Chinese cannot be trusted, and so on.
Still, I suppose that was par for the times? And who says a protagonist has to be likable anyway?
I liked the book for the marine setting, the awesome fishing scenes, the lovely relationship between Harry and his wife, and the gunshot action between Harry and others. Still this book would have been forgettable if not for the last chapter from Harry’s wife’s point of view. It’s wonderfully written and ends the book on a high note.
Overall a flawed but enjoyable novel. It may be Hemingway’s worst book but still it was one I enjoyed reading.
I read this book as part of The Classics Club reading challenge. I’ve badly neglected my classic reading effort with this book being the first classic I read in 2014. Hopefully I do better in the second half of 2014.