This is not at all the Nazi romp of Bogie and Bacall fame. There might be some external similarities, but they seem fleeting. If you put your lips together to whistle here, the likelihood would be that it would be to warn someone that the police were coming. Life can be tough in The Conch Republic.
Harry Morgan is a hard man in a hard time. He owns and operates his own fishing boat, out of Key West, catering to those who Have and want an ocean-going adventure. When Harry is stiffed out of almost three weeks of costs by a boorish client, he immediately becomes a Have Not, is faced with some tough choices, and agrees to transport some illegal Chinese immigrants in from Cuba, a mere 90 miles away. He will go on to smuggle more materials and people over the course of the story.
Desperation is a frequent visitor on these remote shores. Harry is far from alone in feeling the impact of the Depression. One shipmate is a drunk who has seen the last of his good days. A sometimes hire is desperately trying to catch a job anywhere, just to feed his family. The illegals Harry transports are as desperate as working class illegals often are. Even one of the women here is shown in some detail contemplating her grim prospects after her husband has died.
One group with whom Harry has dealings is Cuban revolutionaries. Harry, echoing Hemingway, offers a bit of support for their desires, their ideals, but faced with the reality of their actions, he sees beneath the plating to something a bit less glittery. There are crooks aplenty afloat here, whether a corrupt lawyer, a murderous coyote, a tax cheat, a welcher, and the odd homicidal revolutionary. Come visit.
The book has the feel of something that was thrown together, or at least done in jumps. Turns out that is indeed the case. The first chunk was originally published in Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1934 under the title “One Trip Across.” Part Two of the book first appears in Esquire, February 1936, as “The Tradesman’s Return.” The narration voice varies, from Harry’s to an omniscient narrator, to the voice of sundry others later in the book. This is not necessarily a problem, but does make things feel a bit disjointed. Contributing to this is that, while the travails of Harry Morgan occupy most of the novel, he vanishes for a considerable swath towards the end, and our focus turns to several have characters, only a few of whom we have met before.
Hemingway offers us a look at the sorts of desperation these haves experience. A wealthy grain trader rues a decision made in greed some years back, as the feds circle. A ne’er do well trust fund kid is a kid no more, his holdings have been hit hard by the Wall Street crash and the sorts of banking criminality that have become far too familiar, so he has to do what he has to do to keep up at least the veneer of wealth.
“The eternal jackpot. I’m playing a machine now that doesn’t give jackpots anymore. Only tonight I just happened to think about it. Usually I don’t think about it.”
Harry had risked his life to provide for his family, but the haves seem at a loss when faced with a loss of workless income.
the money on which it was not worth while for him to live was one hundred and seventy dollars more a month than the fisherman Albert Tracy had been supporting his family on…
One particular wanderer in here is Richard Gordon, a character clearly intended as a Hemingway stand-in, a writer of renown in a troubled marriage, something Ernest knew a little something about. There is a local married lady who “collects writers as well as their books,” disdaining a husband who may be impotent.
Overall, there is a dark caste here. Part of that is the times, the Depression, when it was tough to bask in the glow of much of anything. It makes sense that the characters Hemingway portrays reflect the struggles of the era. While he clearly has little sympathy for the haves, he hardly paints the have nots with halos. There is plenty of hardship, and plenty of corruption to go around.
I have not read much Hemingway, so lack the sort of insights one might acquire from a broader and deeper reading of his work. Man testing his mettle vs the world is one we know about though and that is present in abundance here. Harry is screwed by the world so does what he has to do, which includes considerable physical risk. Others prostrate themselves in other ways to get what they need. Are they any less active in taking on the world? Or is it only that it is their methods that differ? Things do not work out all that great for Harry. Maybe there are better approaches to his problem. Then, maybe there are not, and the world just sucks. The world shown here certainly fits into the trope “Life’s a bitch and then you die. Have a nice day.”
Is this great literature? I am open to being corrected and I did think more of it before getting down to actually writing, but I would say “nah.” Interesting certainly, bleak, but too much a Frankenstein beast, parts cadged together, however expertly, that make for a less than successful merger.
To Read or Read Not? I would take the plunge. It might illuminate themes and other specifics in Hemingway’s later works, while providing a dark look at a dark time. You never can tell when a dark time might come around.
PS – it is impossible, even though the character Harry Morgan bears no physical resemblance to Bogart, to keep that voice and delivery out of one’s head while reading this.