Pursuit as Happiness
reviewed by Jon Duelfer
This Side Up by Richard McGuire
I love Hemingway’s writing; For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro are some of the best stories I have ever read. I was surprised – and then thrilled – to find his name in the new fiction issue of the New Yorker.
Hemingway’s grandson gives a background to this never-before-published story in this interview. In short, Pursuit as Happiness was a story that Hemingway had typed up, never published, and still had edits in his own handwriting.
As we can imagine, it’s not as polished as his previously published works – which is normal considering that he didn’t publish it. We have to remember that it’s a raw form of his writing. He clearly didn’t want to publish it in his lifetime, but it also gives us insight into his creativity. That being said, I really enjoyed the story.
The narrator charters a fishing boat, the Anita, from its owner, Mr. Josie, at a discounted rate. They know each other well. They fish for marlin of the coast of Cuba. They bring their catch – what little they can find in this difficult fishing year – to sell at the pier in Havana.
Because of their difficulty catching marlin this year, and so many locals in Havana are scrambling to get it, they record who is owed fish through a libro de compromiso – listing the names and quantity of fish owed to each person. This indicates a larger unrest in Havana, as police come through to break up the crowds. Once the crowd is dispersed, the policemen try to take fish for themselves. Mr. Josie stands up to them.
“Now policeman, you go the hell away from here and club somebody who isn’t a friend of ours. I seen enough damn police in my life. Go on. Take the club and the pistol both and get off the dock unless you’re a dock police.”
Although there is an undercurrent of social unrest, it’s not a focus of the story.
The narrator and Mr. Josie pack up and head downtown to a bar. We learn that the narrator is writing stories. Mr. Josie pushes him to write more between fishing trips. It turns out that the narrator is Ernest Hemingway himself. This is surprising because he did not typically write blatantly autobiographical stories (except for those about the war or obscuring who he was in the stories).
“Why don’t you write good short stories about Europe or out West or when you were on the bum or war or that sort of thing? Why don’t you write one about just things that you and I know?
That’s what Pursuit as Happiness seems to be: a story that only Hemingway and an old fishing partner seem to know about. It’s nice to read an autobiographical blend of fiction and nonfiction about Hemingway’s life and inspiration.
In the morning, when the first daylight from across the bay woke me I got up and started to write a short story that I hoped Mr. Josie would like. It had the Anita in it and the waterfront and the things we knew that had happened and I tried to get into it the feeling of the sea and the things we saw and smelled and heard and felt each day.
The story then shifts – as the passage above indicates – to them out on the sea fishing for marlin. Hemingway hooks a huge marlin, so they pursue it deep into the sea. This part of the story reminded me of The Old Man and the Sea, except there is a deeper focus on the technical details of fishing, and much less on the morals of an old and stubborn man.
After pursuing the marlin for hours, they are about to pull it in. Another fisherman on the boat, Carlos, has to cut the line to let some slack out as the fish is getting tired and will soon give up.
“Cut away when you are ready,” I said to Carlos. To Mr. Josie I said, “Let your slack out soft and easy, Cap, and I’ll use a light, light drag until we get the feel of it.”
I was watching the green line and the great fish when Carlos cut. Then I head a cry such as I have never heard a sane human being make. It was as though you could distill all despair and make it into a sound. Then I saw the green line slowly going through Mr. Josie’s fingers and then watched it go on down, down, and out of sight. Carlos had cut the wrong loop of the knots he had made. The fish was out of sight.
That passage conveys a lot of what this story is about – the details of marlin fishing. Poor Carlos is left in despair. Hemingway conveys this through his classic bluntness.
“How’s Carlos?” I asked.
“He’s pretty broke up. He’s just crouching down there.”
“I told him not to blame himself.”
“Sure. But he’s down there blaming himself.”
They head back into Havana and the focus of the story shifts back to the unrest around the police. Mr. Josie goes out drinking and happens across a drunk policeman making trouble.
“…he said he liked me and he wanted to kill somebody to prove it. He was one of those special Machado police. Those clubbing police.”
It’s a bizarre interaction. Mr. Josie tries to head home for the night, clearly uncomfortable. The policeman tries to force him to stay. Mr. Josie isn’t having it and heads out anyways.
“So as soon as I start for home this policeman hauls out his gun and starts to pistol-whip a poor damn Gallego who was in there drinking a beer and who’d never opened his mouth all night. Nobody did anything to the policeman. I didn’t, either. I’m ashamed, Cap.”
All of this went down because the policeman said he liked Mr. Josie’s face. That seemed like a weird thing to me, but Hemingway clarifies what he means.
I liked Mr. Josie’s face very much, too. I liked it more than the face of almost anybody I knew. It had taken me a long time to appreciate it because it was a face that had not been sculptured for a quick or facile success. It had been formed at sea, on the profitable side of bars, playing cards with other gamblers, and by enterprises of great risk conceived and undertaken with cold and exact intelligence. No part of the face was handsome except for the eyes, which were a lighter and stranger blue than the Mediterranean is on its brightest and clearest day. The eyes were wonderful and the face certainly not beautiful and now it looked like blistered leather.
“I know a habit is a bad thing,” Mr. Josie said. “And work probably kills more people than any other habit. But with you when you do it then you don’t give a damn about anything else.”
I found it hard to pin down what Pursuit as Happiness is about. I’m still not sure, but Hemingway’s self-explanation makes it seem like he wanted to write a simple story about marlin fishing and what life was like during that time. I got the feeling of the sea, the work, the pride of selling the catch at the local pier, and the despair and coming up empty-handed. I’d say his goal was accomplished.
Of course it is easy to make the connection to The Old Man and the Sea. In the interview with his grandson, the grandson cautions against thinking of this story as “notes” for that novella. That seems reasonable. Although this is a similar setting, it might just mean it was an important part of Hemingway’s life and something he wanted to write about.
If you are a fan of Hemingway’s writing, I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of this story. It’s short and good and a great addition to his published work. It’s also just fun to read.