I recently went to San Juan with no particular purpose in mind, but if I had to chalk it up to something, it was probably to find some peace, in spite of the Eastern adage warning against such pursuits:
The only peace you’ll find at the top of a mountain is the peace you bring with you.
At the least, I hoped, San Juan would be a decent place to read Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, a sun and rum soaked novel about a fisherman running charters and liquor out of Key West in the Depression era.
I finished most of the short novel while either laying on the sand and/or swallowing La Revolucion margaritas (each imbued with two shots of Jose Cuervo that delivered powerful evening-onset hangovers). Everywhere I went I kept it in my back pocket, where it sustained a salty sub-tropical rub and acted as absorbent for both my sweat and my general despondency. My copy has become a neat little souvenir.
I’m not going to spoil it and tell you what the story is about – it’s too subtle and variable to distill into a three act plot summary – but I will tell you what it is about, or at least my justifiably cynical interpretation.
First: the book’s title, “To Have and Have Not” is uniquely bland, a rarity for Hemingway, who wrestled mightily to find perfect titles for his books. For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises (dumbly renamed Fiesta by some British publishing profiteers), and A Farewell to Arms are titles that all ring of literary poignancy. To Have and Have Not, though, is merely a very clear statement of the novel’s thematic content. As the first mate on my sailing excursion in San Juan Bay said, leafing through the pages, “Haven’t heard of this one.”
This isn’t commie lit about the great gap between the Haves and Have-Nots, between the top 1% and the 99 of us scraping down below, and it’s happily not some cartoonish depiction of fat yachtsmen living free and clear at the expense of the poor “conchs” trolling for a dollar in Key West bars.
The Haves and Have-Nots, interestingly and accurately, are not people. They are aspects of a single person – of each individual character – who graces the pages of this story. Although there is a main character (the massive and beautiful Harry Morgan, who never pitied anyone, least of all himself), he serves almost as a control subject against which to compare the seemingly hundreds of bit characters whose intimate and disastrous lives we are briefly shown:
The young and highly coveted, but loyal, wife who is finally emotionally ruined by her author husband’s philandering; the philandering author, whose books don’t much impress many of the locals, and whose attempted philandering actually ended in a major rebuke; the yacht owner who is growing fat and is now likely going to jail for tax evasion, despite the size of his storied sexual equipment and an epic history of bedding women and crushing business competitors; Albert, who is drunk and out of work, and who will take any sort of dangerous job to keep the wife and kids from going hungry; and the young idealistic Cuban communist who would kill Albert if he stood in the way of funding a revolution of the working class.
Meanwhile, Harry Morgan soldiers on for the simplest of causes: an enlarged and aged wife, though she used to be a looker, and their two young girls. The revolutionary ideals of the communists repel him because they are ridiculous. The lawyers, women and rummies are all poison. Harry dislikes mostly everyone, but won’t figure any man out of an equation if he can somehow gain a slight advantage in the world by their use. “Take it easy,” is Morgan’s go-to line after he rubs someone the wrong way.
Harry takes his lumps – loses an arm midway through the book in an awesome scene, of which we are artfully treated only to the aftermath (Hemingway is a master): a bullet riddled boat sidled up to a mangrove as liquor from blasted bottles swills across the deck. Harry just pins up his sleeve and keeps working – “I work twice as fast,” he says when asked how a man with one arm can be a fisherman.
To Have and Have Not is, in short, our story – a story about all of us, from top to bottom. Even that concept of stratification, the idea that some men are at the top and some are at the bottom, measured most often in financial terms, becomes meaningless in the confines of what Hemingway considered his least favorite novel (I remain confounded as to why).
More accurately, each man has something, and all the while he is missing something else. We will all take our lumps, but there’s only two directions for us to choose: onward, or out.
As some classic film buffs might know, there is a Bogart / Bacall movie, Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, in which a sultry 19 year-old Bacall makes her big screen debut.
The movie should not have been called To Have and Have Not, and certainly they should not have slapped Ernest Hemingway’s name onto it as well, but I suppose there’s no point in complaining about the fruits of commercialism. It’s a good movie, but it should not be confused as being the same story, or even close to the same story, told by Hemingway.
The movie takes a few shards of Hemingway’s novel – the name Harry Morgan, a couple compelling scenes now disembodied from Hemingway’s context – and stuffs them into the standard Hollywood test car dummy plot – this one being a new take on Casablanca, replete with Vichy French (now in Martinique instead of Morocco) and a serviceable blockbuster plot featuring a morbidly obese villain.