The man who identifies himself as Cohn in The Sun Also Rises once said to me, "But why did you make me cry all the time?"I said, "Listen, if that is you than the narrator must be me. Do you think that I had my prick shot off...? And I'll tell you a secret: you do cry an awful lot for a man."
I will admit that F. Scott Fitzgerald might be a better stylist than Ernest Hemingway. It's hard to imagine Hemingway writing something as beautiful as "And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
But Fitzgerald's books are about the rich and famous. His heroes are people like Monro Starr, the Irving Thalberg standin in The Last Tycoon, or Gatsby, the nouveau-riche bootlegger. Interesting, sure, but not people you can look up to.
Hemingway's heroes are people who are good at what they do. Yes, he has issues with women, and yes, he has issues with men. But his characters do what they say and act in accordance with their principals. They don't bitch and whine or fall apart. They don't shuck their workload. They are, like Fitzgerald's characters, exaggerations, but the qualities Hemingway exaggerated are more valuable and more rare than those Fitzgerald focused on.
In the last few weeks I've been dealing with a couple of family emergencies, one involving a piece of real estate rented out by my uncle (unbeknownst to him or us) to a grow-op. The other involves a family member's illness. I'm a lot more torn up about the latter than the former, but I've been operating on the same principle for both: make yourself useful. My mother is like that. She just gets down to what has to be done and does it. My dad too.
I've noticed that most of the people associated with those two emergencies have no interest in being of use. The situation exists for them to register their emotions. or to to rekindle family grudges with fresh ammunition, or to sit around talking bullshit.
The quality I hate most in people is their insistence on making any situation about them, no matter how peripheral they may be to the central issue. I have an aunt like that and I can't stand her. Emergencies reveal interesting things about people.
Sure, we all have a natural solipsism that casts us as the heroes of whatever events occur in our lives. Like the bit player in A Streetcar Named Desire who played the part of the orderly who carts Blanche away at the end. When asked what the play was about, he said, "It's about a guy who carts a woman to the crazy house."
Maybe that's natural. But there are people where, when the dictates of the situation clash with their fantasies, refuse to adapt so much as a cunthair. Feelings of uselessness and futility can be expressed in anger, boastfulness, scorn, or some such dramatic outburst. But you can take those feelings and rerout them to the benefit of everybody. That's one of the heartwarming lessons of David Milch's shows: not everyone is going to shoot down the road agent, but you can still play an important role by cooking, standing guard, even just offering to take over a few menial chores from someone else.
That would never occur to the kind of person I'm talking about.
And I think what really shaped Hemingway's outlook was knowing there were only a few people he could rely on. You look at some people and you just know they can't be counted on, which means you're looking at them as an added burden. Your choice is either to distance yourself from them or kick their ass and try to make them of use. It's hard not to be contemptuous of someone when you know they can't be counted on.
I mean, the amount of work, the casuistry people will go to to evade responsibility! Whenever I hear someone trash Hemingway's writing, I imagine that they're one of those people, utterly useless in a crisis.
Green Hills of Africa has a character, a native, who Hemigway names Garrick. The real Garrick was one of the most esteemed Shakespearean actors of his day, and Hemingway pokes fun at this tribesman's need to orate and embellish the events of the hunts (with himself, of course, taking a prominent role). Garrick the tribesman is utterly useless in the field, but he's the first one to start bragging.
It's not a matter or being nice or being good. As Mister French says in the Departed, "Nowadays who's reliable?"