It wasn't more than a few pages into Earnest Hemingway's Islands in the Stream when I realized what was going to happen. For those of you who don't want to hear any details about major events in the story, this is probably not the post for you. Come join me again tomorrow for spoiler-free discussions of ancient poetry.
As I mentioned in Thursday's post, Thomas Hudson is a man trying to come to terms with grief. That grief is the death of his sons--something we only learn about at the end of the first section and the beginning of the second. Although the fact of their deaths does not happen earlier, the reader knows the deaths are coming because of Hemingway's clear foreshadowing. Nevertheless, there was a twist in my expectations which left me fascinated.
Hemingway lets us know from the very beginning that something bad is coming. When Hudson is talking to the barkeep (who pours all those tominis and other drinks), they come up with a plan for large new paintings--of waterspouts overcoming fishermen, of hurricanes, of the sinking of the Titanic:
"Don't be shocked by its magnitude. You got to have vision, Tom. We can paint the End of the World," he paused. "Full size."
"Hell," Thomas Hudson said.
"No. Before hell. Hell is just opening."
This End of the World--a personal End--is almost exactly what unfolds for us in the painting that is the next 400-plus pages of Hemingway's novel.
In another early scene, Hudson's writer-friend Roger tells him of the death of his younger brother David many years before. When the two boys were out on the water, their canoe flipped and both were plunged into the cold water. "'I tried to go down after him. But I couldn't find him,' Roger said. 'It was too deep and it was really cold.'" He confesses to Hudson that he'd never gotten over his guilt and sorrow about his brother's death--and he'd never been able to talk about it. Instead, he turned to the world of writing novels not worth a damn, as he says. It was an escape, a way to run away from his pain.
Hudson tries to convince Roger that he could write a great novel if he confronted his grief. "You told me a hell of a good novel tonight if you wanted to write it," says Hudson to Roger after he shares the story of the drowning. "Just start with the canoe."
"And end it how?"
"Make it up after the canoe."
* * *
It seemed clear to me by this point that someone loved by the artist was going to be coming to his end via drowning. When Hudson's sons come and one is scared of going goggle-fishing but eventually agreed to go, I bit my nails during the entire scene. When they are chased by a hammerhead shark, I knew we were at their deaths. Then, when Hudson's son David catches an enormous fish and tries to reel it in for hours in the hot sun, I realized he'd be the goner. Gosh, even his name was the same as Roger's dead brother. I kept wailing to my own David (my partner) that watching David trying to catch the big fish was like watching a train wreck in slow motion.
Right as young David pulls the thousand-pound fish to the surface, the men realized that the fish was only attached to the lure by a thread of flesh, and then by nothing. "It was no good. The great fish hung there in the depth of the water where it was like a huge dark purple bird and then settled slowly. They all watched him go down, getting smaller and smaller until he was out of sight." One of the men jumped into the water in an attempt to save the fish--that is, get the hook back into the fish so David could pull him out. But the fish was comdemned to sink into the deep cold water.
Just as the tension on the fishing rod was released as the exhausted fish fell through the water, I suddenly felt free of the unbearable pressure of waiting for death of one of the sons. The foreshadowing was about the fish's death! While in a way I felt like Hemingway was manipulating my emotions, I also saw that he was using a fascinating literary trick, making two parallel but radically different drownings seem equivalent because of their potential impact on the living.
So all was well in the story, the family goes to the bar and pulls an almost sweet hoax on the patrons, and finally the boys board the plane to go home. Hudson is sorry to lose them now that he has experienced the humor and love that have pervaded his home during the summer.
And then, I turned the page. Hudson receives a telegram that two of his sons have died in a car accident while riding with their mother. I turn a few more pages, and his other son dies while at war.
OK--so there will be a paragraph missing here. I had hoped to say something interesting about how this sudden tragedy works in the book, but I'm afraid I'm almost speechless. Please let me know what you make of it. It seems to me that there is a sort of horrible relief which occurs when we are waiting for the worst to happen. But Hemingway strips that away from us, leaving us with no defenses in place as we confront the shock that Hudson has, in its sudden and pure grief.
Hudson can't deal with his grief, closing off even more than Roger. Eventually, he loses everything except his sense of duty, and finally he loses even that. Islands in the Stream is a heartbreaking book. Despite its weaknesses (discussed in my first Hemingway post), it is well worth the read.