Magazine article The Christian Century

The Hemingway Files: A Novel

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Hemingway Files: A Novel

Article excerpt

The Hemingway Files: A Novel

By H. K. Bush

Blank Slate, 300 pp., $15-95 paperback

One blurb writer calls H. K. Bush's novel "layered," and it certainly is that. First, there is the framing story. An aging, professionally discouraged English professor named Martin Dean receives a package from his protege, Jack Springs, a former standout student who has gone on to earn a Ph.D. and a good position in the Gonzaga English department after experiencing a painful epiphany during a Japanese guest lectureship. Another layer: Jack has recently died of prostate cancer in early middle age, so the package is a gift and a message from the dead, forwarded by Jack's grieving father.

Some of the carefully wrapped parcels in Jack's package I won't describe, so as not to ruin the surprises Bush builds into the plot. The bulk of the package consists of a manuscript, Jack's tale of his visiting professorship in Kobe, Japan, some 15 years earlier, in the middle 1990s. This tale in Jack's voice becomes the novel's main action. Professor Dean's written reactions to Jack's chapters add another layer, one that is oddly tutorial. He tells us, for example, that certain "sacred temple items also became symbolic of Jack's subsequent quest," as if we hadn't deduced that for ourselves.

Dean's response to the entire story becomes the expected concluding frame element. Jack's story, a final installment of his "epistolary friendship" with his old professor, is a moving way of honoring Ralph Waldo Emerson's praise of friendship through correspondence. Both Jack and Dean love Emerson, who--along with Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Ezra Pound--receives far more attention in the novel than Hemingway does.

Bush must have had his own experiences in Japan, because the most convincing passages in his tale involve the challenges of trying to retain a Western identity and American academic's sense of vocation in the inscrutable East.

Inscrutable isn't my word: Bush's characters continually argue that for Westerners like Jack (as well as Jack's literary heroes), Japan is the great other, a complex and desirable world largely veiled from Western understanding. Poor Jack spends two years receiving this lesson from some distinctly irritating Japanese hosts, mentors, and potential lovers. His department chair, Professor Aoyama, is demanding and curt. Aoyama and his colleague, a weasel named Miyamoto, are downright rude in offering their cultural advice. …

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