Monday, February 21, 2005

Living In The Kingdom Of Fear Without The World's Greatest Bullshit Detector

I once heard Hunter in an interview say that he used to type out the texts of great works he admired, on his own typewriter, so he could get a sense of the author's rhythms. Here's excerpts I've transcribed this morning from Hunter's essay on Ketchum, Idaho and why Hemingway chose it as the place to end his life. The essay appeared in the collection The Great Shark Hunt.

What Lured Hemmingway To Ketchum?

When news of his death made headlines in 1961 there must have been other people besides myself who wewre not as surprised by the suicide as by the fact that the story date-lined Ketchum, Idaho. What was he doing living there? When had he left Cuba, where most people assumed he was working, against what he knew was his last deadline, on the long-promised Big Novel?

The newspapers never answered those questions-not for me, at any rate-so it was with a feeling of long-restless curiosity that I came, last week, up the long bleak road to Ketchum.

He had been coming here off and on since 1938, until finally, in 1960, he bought a home just outside of town.

The answers might be instructive- not only as a key to Hemingway, but to a question he often pondered, even in print. "We do not have great writers," he explains to the Austrian in Green Hills of Africa. "Something happens to our good writers at a certain age...You see we make out writers into something very strange...We destroy them in many ways." But Hemingway himself never seemed to discover in what way he was being "destroyed," and so he never understood how to avoid it.

Even so, he knew something had gone wrong with both himself and his writing, and after a few days in Ketchum you get a feeling that he came here for exactly that reason. Because it was here, in the years just before and after World War II, that he came to hunt and ski and raise hell in the local pubs with Gary Cooper and Robert Taylore and all the other celebrities who came to Sun Valley when it still loomed large on cafe society's map of diversions.

Those were "the good years," and Hemingway never got over the fact that they couldn't last. He was here with his third wife in 1947, but then he settled in Cuba and 12 years went by before he came again- a different man this time, with yet another wife, Mary, and a different view of the world he had once been able "to see clear and as a whole."

Kethchum was perhaps the only place in his world that had not changed radically since the good years.

Hemingway didn't have many friends in Ketchum. Chuck Atkinson was one of them, and when I saw him one morning in his house on a peak overlooking the town, he had just received a copy of A Moveable Feast. "Mary sent it from New York," he explained. "I read part of it after breakfast; it's good, it sounds more like him than some of the other stuff."

Another friend was Taylor "Beartracks" Williams, a veteran guided who died last year and was buried near the man who gave him the original manuscript of For Whom The Bell Tolls. It was "Beartracks" who took Hemingway into the mountains after elk, bear, antelope, and sheep in the days when "Papa" was still a meat-hunter.

Charley Mason, a wandering pianist, is one of the few people who spent much time with him, mainly listening, because "When Ernie had a few drinks he could carry on for hours with all kinds of stories. It was better than reading his books."

I met Mason in the Sawtooth Club on Main Street, when he came in to order coffee over the bar. He is off the booze these days and people who know him say he looks 10 years younger. As he talked, I had an odd feeling that he was somehow a creation of Hemingway's, that he had escaped from one of the earlier short stories.

"He was a hell of a drinker," Mason said with a chuckle. "I remember one time over at the Tram [a local pub] just a few years ago; he ws with two Cubans- one was a great big Negro, a gun-runner he knew from the Spanish Civil War, and the other was a delicate little guy, a neurosurgeon from Havana with fine hands like a musician. That was a three-day session. They were blasted on wine the whole time and jabbering in Spanish live revolutionaries. One afternoon when I was there, Hemingway jerked the checkered cloth off the table and he and the other big guy took turns making the little doctor play the bull. They'd whirl and jerk the cloth around- it was a hell of a sight."

On another evening, out at Sun Valley, Mason took a break on the stand and sat down for a while at Hemingway's table. In the course of the conversation Mason asked him it took "to break in on the literary life, or anything else creative, for that matter."

"Well," said Hemingway, "there's only one thing I live by- that's having the power of your conviction and knowing what to leave out." He said the same thing before, but whether he still believed it in the winter of his years is another matter. There is good evidence that he was not always sure what to leave out, and very little evidence to show that his power of conviction survived the war.

That power of conviction is a hard thing for any writer to sustain, and especially so once he becomes conscious of it.

It is not just a writer's crisis, but they are the most obvious victims because the function of art is a supposedly to bring order out of chaos, a tall order even when the chaos is static, and a superhuman task in a time when chaos is multiplying.

Ketchum was Hemingway's Big Two Hearted River, and he wrote his own epitaph in the story of the same name, just as Scott Fitzgerald had written his epitaph in a book called The Greay Gatsby. Neither man understood the vibrations of a world that had shaken them off their thrones, but of the two, Fitzgerald showed resilience. His half-finished Last Tycoon was a sincere effort to catch up and come to grips with reality, no matter how distasteful it might have seemed to him.

Hemingway never made such an effort. The strength of his youth became rigidity as he grew older, and his last book was about Paris in the Twenties.

Standing on the corner in the middle of Ketchum it is easy to see the connection Hemingway must have made between this place and those had had known in the good years. Aside from the brute beauty of the mountains, he must have recognized an atavistic distinctiness in the people that piqued his sense of dramatic possibilities. It is a raw and peaceful little village, especially in the off season with neither winter skiers nor summer fisherman to dilute the image. Only the main street is pavedl most of the others are no more than dirt and gravel tracks that seem at times to run right through front yards.

From such a vantage point a man tends to feel it is not so difficult, after all, to see the world clear and as a whole. Like many another writer, Hemingway did his best work when he felt he was standing on something solid- like an Idaho mountainside, or a sense of conviction.

Perhaps he found what he came here for, but the odds are huge that he didn't. He was an old, sick, and very troubled man, and the illusion of peace and contentment was not enough for him- not even when his friends came up from Cuba and played bullfight with him in the Tram. So finally, and for what he must have thought the best of reasons, he ended it with a shotgun.

National Observer, May 25th 1964

"and he wrote his own epitaph"

Maybe Hunter did too.

From the Author's Note of the same book:

Well...yes, and here we go again.

But for just a moment I'd like to say, for the permanent record, that it is a very strange feeling to be a 40-year-old American writer in this century and sitting alone in this huge building on Fifth Avenue in New York at one o'clock in the morning on the night before Christmas Even, 2000 miles from home, and compiling a table of contents for a book of my own collected works in an office with a tall glass door that leads out to a big terrace looking down on the The Plaza Fountain.

Very Strange.

I feel like I might as well be sitting up here carving the words for my own tombstone...and when I finish, the only fitting exit will be right straight off this fucking terrace and into the Fountain, 28 stories below and at least 200 yards out in the air and across Fifth Avenue.

Nobody could follow that act.

Not even me....and in fact the only way I can deal with this eerie situation at all is to make a conscious decision that I have already lived and finished the life I planned to live- (13 years longer, in fact)- and everything from now on will be A New Life, a different thing, a gig that ends tonight and starts tomorrow morning.

So if I decided to leap for The Fountain when I finish this memo, I want to make one thing perfectly clear- I would genuinely love ot make that leap, and if I don't I will always consider it a mistake and a failed opportunity, one of the very few serious mistakes of my First Life that is now ending.

But what the hell? I probably won't do it (for all the wrong reasons), and I'll probably finish this table of contents and go home for Christmas and then have to live for 100 more years with all this goddamn gibberish I'm lashing together.

But Jesus, it would be a wonderful way to go out...and if I do you bastards are going to owe me a king-hell 44-gun salutr (the word is "salute," goddamnit- And I guess I can't work this elegant typewriter as well as I thought I could)...

But you know I could, if I had a little more time.



HST #1, R.I.P.

That took a long time to transcribe but it felt good to do.

I learned about Hunter Thompson dying last night around 1:30 AM. I was lost on some highway in Vermont. I had been travelling in the wrong direction for close to an hour. A moment after I heard the news I realized my directional mistake. I was exhausted, low on gas, and a big snowstorm was starting up. I didn't get back home until 4:30 AM. As the snowfall got heavier and my head got sleepier the trip back home took on a strange meaning for me. For the last two hours I had the music on full blast and I was screaming nonsense and periodically hitting myself in the head in order to stay awake. I made it home ok and passed my dad leaving for work as I got home to go to bed.

So since I don't own a gun (let alone 44 of them) this will have to serve as my own modest "salutr" for HST. The things he wrote meant something to me and his presence was a gigantic landmark on the road that lead me to the motto that goes something like this: "tell the truth and the rest will fall into place."


"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."

R.I.P. HST #2


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November 23, 2005 at 2:43 AM  

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