Back in late June of 1949, when I was twelve years old, I spent a morning with Ernest Hemingway. This was shortly after I had been hauled down to Cuba, deeply against my will, by my parents, whom I had begun to think of as the Captain and his wife. The Captain had retired from the navy after twenty years’ service, and was following a friend from his time on a destroyer in the Pacific during the war. They were planning to begin a charter fishing business. The friend, who left the navy as the war ended, was already living down there, and the charter fishing idea was his. My father had wired him funds toward getting things set up.Complete story available online at Narrative
The coming-of-age story covers a lot of ground. We tend to think of it as a teenager becoming an adult through learning what love is, or what love isn’t, or voluntarily accepting responsibility, making peace with a childhood fear or letting go of a childhood dream for a more adult goal. It’s a story that shows a paradigm shift, a new way of understanding how the world works, for better or worse.
In this story, I see the coming of age as closely linked to theory of mind, the psychological process by which children learn that other people have different thoughts, beliefs, and desires. While most kids start to develop theory of mind by age 2 or 3, possibly younger, it continues to evolve over time as they mature right into adulthood. It’s the core of empathy, and can be used for good – as in altruism and kindness – or evil – as in double-dealing and swindling.
Clark’s story takes place against a backdrop of geopolitics and high-level intrigue. His father, the Captain, had been in charge when James Forrestal, recently fired Secretary of Defense, committed suicide by jumping from a 16th story window at the naval hospital where he’d been sent for treatment of depression and increasingly odd behavior. I was unaware of this event, but a quick tour of Wikipedia and a few sites got me up to speed enough to understand the general situation.
I’m not precisely sure why Clark’s dad is so skittish about it all, if he feels like he was guilty of dereliction of duty, or if he wonders if there’s a list and he’s next. In any case, this was the event that sent them running to Cuba. The friend who was supposed to set up the charter fishing business disappeared, along with The Captain’s investment in same, leading to more paranoia. I’m not sure if The Captain views him as a scoundrel or a victim.
And this brings up an interesting point. For most of the story, we have only Clark’s point of view, and we’re not sure exactly what the story is, what The Captain is thinking. That’s a failure of theory of mind right there, not because we haven’t developed the capacity, but because we don’t have much information. Nevertheless, the result is the same: a sense of confusion, of not knowing what is true and what isn’t
As it happens, Clark is going through the same thing. His place in the family isn’t clear to him. “Of course, I had nobody, and nothing to do. Nowhere to go. I was just with them: the Captain and his wife.” And this brings up the interesting way Bausch reveals information to the reader. Why would a kid refer to his parents that way? We find out, but it takes a few paragraphs. To modify Kierkegaard, a story can only be understood backwards; but it must be read forwards (funny, I always thought that was Vonnegut; oh well, I was mistaken, not pretentious). This too plays into our confusion, our sense of not knowing true from false.
As promised, Clark does meet Hemingway when he’s sent out to do some errand meant to just get him out from underfoot.
When I came down the stairs from the top deck, there was Hemingway sitting in the café, a newspaper open on the table, coffee at his elbow, with a squat brown bottle of something on the other side of it. Right away I knew who he was: I had been obsessed with lions and Africa, and the Captain had a magazine with pictures of the author-hunter that everyone called Papa. I knew the face, and now I heard the waiter say, “Algo más, Papa?”
“A couple more fried eggs, Alejandro. With chorizo this time, please.”
Hemingway looked at me and smiled. “And what’s yours this morning?”
It was really a wonderful smile. There was coffee in his beard, which still had some darkness in it close to the skin, and his mustache was ash-colored. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. He had on a black T-shirt, ragged, stained white shorts, and rope sandals. I saw the hair on his legs, his big knees. I stood there gaping.
“Why’re you crying?” he said.
I hadn’t known I was. “Nothing,” I told him.
I didn’t know he was crying, either. Again, not a failure of empathy, just the way information is being parsed out. Interesting technique.
A brief scene with Alejandro, the waiter, brings this out more, shows us how some information is revealed, and some is kept. It’s extra interesting that Clark observes and understands the process here:
When Alejandro brought the orange juice, I said to him, “You were in Africa too.”
He glanced at Hemingway, who returned the gaze, grinning now. It was like some kind of joke between them. Then it seemed suddenly serious from the expression on Alejandro’s face.
“Just that you were there,” Hemingway said quietly to him.
“Oh, sí, jovencito,” Alejandro said to me. Then: “I was there, all right, young man. I was there.” He went back to the kitchen.
This information rationing is also seen in a thread that shows up with both The Captain and Hemingway: journalists keep asking them about things they don’t want to talk about. Hemingway doesn’t want to talk about his omission from the 1948 Nobel, and The Captain doesn’t want to talk about Forrestal. It gives the story a bit of a contemporary link.
The Captain eventually comes down and finds Clark having breakfast with Hemingway. Of course he wants in, and by now, Clark has revealed some details about Forrestal that Hemingway can’t resist scratching at; he was a journalist, remember. Clark observes, but finds himself in a surprising position: he wants to defend his father.
I couldn’t believe it. The man who had formed a bond. I looked at him, at the folds of his white shirt, the collar, the one button that was undone halfway down the front. Suddenly I knew Hemingway was lying about knowing Forrestal, as he had lied about everything else, toying with the Captain, for my benefit, and that the Captain was suffering, and that this morning was all part of the badness of a suicide and fear and flight to a country none of us knew, and a friend who had lied and taken money and disappeared. In that moment, for the first time in my life, I saw my father as a person. I saw a man down on his luck. And I wanted Hemingway to stop. He had bought me breakfast and was supposed to be my friend. But I wanted him to leave my father alone.
Clark’s lucky he had this moment, this seeing his father as a person with troubles that had nothing to do with him, at this age. I was a bit younger, about eight, when my parents were suddenly too distracted to worry about any emotional needs a child might have. It felt lonely and scary, as Clark says, like there’s no one for me. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I had access to the information that my father was dealing with a business associate, a friend, who was embezzling right out from under his nose, that my mother had breast cancer in a time when cancer was nearly always fatal, and they were trying to figure out how to get out of the business without losing everything, then trying to set up a new business and a new life a thousand miles away. Without information, it’s hard to see the other side of things.
The story inserts a brief flash-forward of the life that would follow this turbulent time, then closes with a stereotypical scene covered by Clark’s growing ability to see things from another’s shoes. It’s a kind of hopeful-sad, a kind of road-I-don’t-want-to-take for Clark. And from the flash forward, we know the result.
I suspect there’s a bigger connection between the Forrestal suicide and its sequelae (it sounds like lunatic raving, but is is?) and Clark’s coming of age. For that matter, there’s probably a great deal of connection to Hemingway’s work and the story that I can’t recognize. The one thing that does strike me is that his first story collection (and the only collection I’ve read, but it was back in the 80s and no I don’t remember much about it except a woman turned to the wall as she bled out) was titled In Our Time, setting up some resonance with the title here. More insightful analyses will have to belong to someone else.