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Men, Overboard…


Faulkner pined for an airplane. Fitzgerald fantasized about fancy cars. And, as is evident in the new tell-all, Hemingway’s Boat, Papa wanted (and got) Pilar, his beloved fishing boat. How then did all their objects of desire act as the tragic trio’s collective demise, sinking each further into debt, depression and dipsomania? Peter Pavia examines the rise and fall of America’s greatest literary Icaruses, Tuckers and Ahabs, respectively.

To hear the Buddhists tell it, desire lies at the root of all human suffering. Unfortunately, desire is the motivating fact of existence, and without it, none of us would do much of anything. The desire to love and be loved. To knee-punch our way onto some rung of the social order. And maybe, as life becomes a bit more sticky,  to own some sharp looking threads, a few sticks of furniture, a bayside bungalow. The desire to possess things.

In the case of the three pre-eminent American authors of the period between the Great Wars, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway, their desire was to own various means of personal transport.

The Buddhists might have a point.

It’s no accident that the fixations of these authors coincide perfectly with the Age of Transportation. The Wright brothers first flew in 1903, and a few short decades later, commercial air travel was already a fact of American life.  The period preceding World War I was the heyday of the ocean liner, and it continued until the dawn of World War II. The first mass produced Model T Ford rolled off the assembly line around 1914, and by then, young Scott Fitzgerald was already dreaming of owning a car. Alas, it was not the egalitarian Model T that Scotty lusted after, but a finely wrought Stutz that he was young enough and hot enough to captain, “Boardwalk Empire” hair-do flapping in the breeze.

One of the great tragic figures of American Letters (Edgar Allen Poe had a pretty rough shake of it too, but owned no cars), Fitzgerald had a twisted relationship to automobiles that lasted a lifetime. He could never live up to the ideal he set himself up for, and there remained a canyon between his illusions and his reality. Fitzgerald was the not-so-proud owner of many vehicles, from the (used) coupe he bought with the proceeds of his first novel, This Side of Paradise, published when he was 23, to the second-hand Ford he purchased in 1937. In between there was a creaking Packard, a busted up Buick, and yes, that Stutz—but by the time he got behind the wheel of the car, someone else had owned it first. He wasn’t young or hot, and although his golden locks hung in there pretty well, and he still owned a suit nice enough to be photographed wearing, he was bleary with alcoholic bloat and hacking out un-shootable scripts in Hollywood. By 1940, he was dead.

Much has been made over the car as symbol in Fitzgerald’s writing. In a crucial scene in The Great Gatsby, the object of Jay Gatsby’s desire—Daisy Buchanan—careens down the road in a yellow Rolls-Royce (Fitzgerald managed to get his hands on one of those, too) and runs over a woman, killing her. Here is excess writ large: the dreamy, luxurious object of the author’s desire run fatally amok.

Speaking of excruciating desire, consider William Faulkner. This genteel son of the Mississippi soil and practitioner of the stream of consciousness was too short for the United States Army, and so during the Great War, he enlisted in the British Royal Flying Corps. Aviation was a true passion of Faulkner’s, and he studied and trained at installations in Britain and Canada, though he saw no wartime action, and it’s generally believed that he never flew solo. He did, however, pin a pair of wings on the lieutenant’s uniform he wore home to Mississippi. He published several books, including the classic The Sound and the Fury, but like just about every other writer, Faulkner needed to generate cash. Putting in play some high-toned connections—including Tallulah Bankhead—that he made on a trip to New York, Faulkner went West to take a whack at the movies.

Five of the six scripts Faulkner gets credit for were directed by tough-guy director Howard Hawks. In addition to booze and broads and hunting, Hawks and Faulkner shared another great affection: flying. Faulkner wrote a novel titled Pylon, based on the life and death of an air-show stunt pilot. And in 1933, temporarily flush with Hollywood dough, Faulkner purchased a Waco 210 monoplane and learned how to fly it.  Whether or not the novelty of the plane wore off, or whether an object of desire once acquired is no longer desirable is unclear, but he gave the aircraft as a gift to his brother Dean. A short time later, Dean was killed when he crashed the Waco. The Faulkners were no strangers to tragedy, but some say the loss of his brother was the overwhelming sorrow of William’s life, and while productive throughout his remaining years, the author lived them out under the lash of a guilt and grief-driven alcoholism.

What hasn’t already been said about the man who casts his shadow over all of American literature, Ernest Hemingway?

Quite a bit, it turns out, in Paul Hendrickson’s brilliant new biography, Hemingway’s Boat. Tasked with the epic assignment of separating the man from the myth and positioning him in the world he inhabited, the biographer points to the one lady Hemingway didn’t get bored of, a 38 foot cabin cruiser the author christened Pilar.

Pilar was a pleasure craft, but Hemingway made her into a fishing machine, and pursued his deep-sea fishing-obsession for decades, through the waters off Cuba and the Florida Keys, landing one trophy fish after another. He also reserved some of his rottenest behavior for her decks, such as the time he paraded a 19-year-old prostitute on board in front of his wife and her cousin.

Hemingway’s Boat depicts a man boiling with contradictions, raging against the inevitability of death. The tactile world of sliced fingers, of hook-pierced hands, and sunburnt cheeks were the antidote to the life the author also lived, by choice and by nature, a life of imagination and intellect, this bespectacled, bookish man who drank and brawled and hauled 500-pound fish out of the sea.

The subtitle of Hendrickson’s book is Everything He Loved in Life and Lost, 1934-1961, citing the year Pilar entered the sea until the year Hemingway left this world, by his own hand. This is more than the suggestion of a long, slow decline. The story here is of a man for whom nothing was any good any more, not even the faint hope of fulfilling any of his desires, for a man who was driven and ultimately consumed by them, until desire, or maybe the lack of desire, took the man, old before his time, down for good.