Sunday, October 20, 2013

Review of The Hemingway Hoax by Joe Haldeman

At a quick glance, Ernest Hemingway and Joe Haldeman would seem not to have much in common. One flourishing in modernist times, the other most certainly in post-modern times, the two nevertheless share some important qualities: both are writers and war veterans.  Regardless that one is realist and the other speculative, one WWI and the other Vietnam, their commonalities shape their ideas in ways that others without similar backgrounds cannot relate to.  Not only an homage to a writer he obviously knows a lot about, Haldeman’s 1990 The Hemingway Hoax is a lustful, violent novella that examines the dirty parts of the psyche via time travel and parallel universes.

The Hemingway Hoax is the story of Joe Baird.  A humble Hemingway scholar married to an attractive woman half his age, life is getting worse rather than better, that is, until meeting the con man Sylvester Castlemain in the Miami railway station one day.  Suggesting the two collaborate on a scam to “find” the manuscripts that were supposedly stolen from Papa’s girlfriend at the Paris railway station, Baird begrudgingly agrees, and sets about doing research into the correct typewriter, paper, ink, and style.  Heading back to Florida after research at the Hemingway section of the JFK library in Boston, a strange thing happens: Hemingway himself appears in the carriage warning that if Baird continues with his ruse, the world will collapse.  Baird doesn’t know whether to believe the apparition or not, but after being thrown into a parallel universe, things only get stranger: if he is to finish the fake manuscript, he’ll have to face the Hemingway figure again, and again, and…

Wheels spinning within wheels spinning within wheels, The Hemingway Hoax is a complex story looking only at the narrative structure.  Changing times and switching between different versions of our reality, the beginning and end of the story are two different places.  Requiring thought to weave together the strands of setting and character, the surreal outcome does not belie the straightforward, realist premise.  Thus, readers should beware that while Haldeman uses the sci-fi motifs of time travel and parallel universes, his ultimate aim is something more meta-textual.

Almost like an act of catharsis, The Hemingway Hoax is exceptionally graphic from a sex and violence point of view.  Haldeman seeming to exorcise demons of his wartime experience, Baird likewise goes through a series of iterative, visceral wartime remembrances, depending which reality he gets himself into.  Hemingway also troubled by his time in WWI, Baird acts as a nexus of the two writers’ nightmares of blood and injury, several of the scenes gut-twisting, literally and figuratively. 

In the end, The Hemingway Hoax is a thought-provoking story whose conclusion does not belie its simple beginning.  The thought needed more in the area of plot and direction, the story’s other concepts are shrouded, moving in unexpected directions—love triangles, treachery, and honor all playing out.  Chapter titles the names of Hemingway books and stories, the imprints of Papa are all over the story.  Whether Haldeman's ruse is successful, well, the reader will have to decide for themselves.  (If the meta-fictional use of Hemingway is of interest to the reader, they might also look into Dan Simmons’ less-fantastic The Crook Factory.


  1. Baird's wife is not half his age: she's 35, he's 52, "half again as old as she," as the novel tells us. Baird and Castlemaine (note the spelling) meet in "a run-down bar in Key West" (page one), not in a Miami train station. The manuscript's were stolen from Hemingway's first wife, Hadley, not his girlfriend (and long before he assumed the Papa persona).

    1. Thanks for the corrections. I listened to the audiobook, so the name spellings were a crapshoot, and apparently for the rest wasn't listening close enough - the danger of the audiobook. Thanks again.