Thursday, December 4, 2008

Books: The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway

It is difficult for me to discuss this book on its own terms because of the scenario surrounding its reading. I was on the subway, settling in for a long ride from Brooklyn to the Bronx on a rainy Sunday evening. The car was nearly empty, and I was reading. A few stops later, a group of black teenagers, perhaps six or seven, get on the train and commence being rowdy. They make a lot of noise. I don’t look up; I am reading my book. My book is The Old Man and the Sea. It is not very compelling, but I am reading it anyway. Meanwhile, the thuglets are creating a rather wild rumpus; there are plenty of open seats for them in which to sit down together, but instead, they sit, one at a time, directly next to white strangers, even insinuating themselves at one moment between the children of a white family. But I don't see any of this; I don't look up. I'm reading my (very plodding) book.

Then one sits down next to me. I don't look up from the page. His friends come and sit across from us and watch. I continue to read. He puts his head on my shoulder. I am holding my book with my right hand. Without looking up, I wrap my left arm around his shoulders and begin to stroke his hair through his hat. His friends bust up laughing, shocked, shouting ho! As he snuggles into my arm, I lean in and ask if he wants me to read to him as well. He nods his head yes. I begin to read (this very plodding narrative) aloud. At first my voice is unsure, but as I notice more and more people watching (the children of the white family have gathered around, their mouths open, and everyone else in the car is staring as well), I read more confidence and clarity. Another of the black teens comes over and wraps my arm around him as well. I read for about ten minutes until they start to get fidgety. One of the kids starts singing, let's talk about sex, ba-by, and, without missing a beat, I look up from my book and sing, let's talk about you and me, and again, shocked, they shout ho! nuh-uh! and laugh. We commence chatting for the rest of my ride; they ask me how old I am, what my name is, what my number is, and whether we can talk. I give them my number with the caveat that I mostly like to talk about books (they tell me that books are boring, but that they'll call me and let me read to them). When I have to get off the train, they are disappointed, and say why are you leaving us? I wave to them from the platform as the train rolls away.

They didn't call me. That made me sad.

This was the best thing about the book, but any book could have stood in. As an archetype, I suppose any book should fit in with The Old Man and the Sea, which is the same story as Steinbeck's The Pearl, only with an old man and a fish rather than a young couple and a pearl, and with a bit less calamity. The novel is didactic; spare, yes, but not intelligently so. In fact, it's rather naively so, and, in fact, rather pompous. Hemingway's connection with the Cuban fisherman is distanced and strained; clearly he wants to write in the man's simple voice, but he has no access to that simplicity, so that he instead inserts native words here and there, inadvertently breaking the fourth wall ("Tomorrow I will eat the dolphin. He called it dorado.") Toward the novel's end (the plot is a parabola of labor, with the apex being the lashing of the great fish to the side of the boat), the entire fish has been consumed by sharks, in spite of the fisherman's bravest efforts to kill them off. We are neither surprised nor disappointed; that is, obviously, the only possible end to this plodding theme of suffering.

No wonder those kids think books are boring.


FB said...

This story is pretty PBA!

Anonymous said...

How can I be distracted from studying if you never update your blog - which I would never read.