Islands in the Stream
by Ernest Hemingway
Scribner’s, 466 pp., $10.00
“You’re going to write straight and simple and good now. That’s the start.” The faded adjuration in Islands in the Stream is from one half of Hemingway to his other half—from the lonely uncorrupted painter Thomas Hudson to the companionable corrupted novelist Roger Davis. “That’s the start”: and Islands in the Stream, which is the end, is not straight or simple or good. Written mostly in 1951, ten years before he shot himself, it is Hemingway’s last novel; it comes hard on the callous heels of Across the River and Into the Trees, and it opens up the Parisian reminiscences (it has its own such) which petrified as A Moveable Feast. It had grown into a four-part enterprise, but Hemingway salvaged The Old Man and the Sea, and what now remains is Part I “Bimini,” Part II “Cuba,” and Part III “At Sea.”
“Bimini” is Thomas Hudson in the 1930s entertaining the three sons of his two wrecked marriages; they fish; their love leaves him open to his loneliness, and then the death of two of them leaves him nothing but lonely. “Cuba” is Thomas Hudson clandestinely war-efforting in about 1942; his other son (the eldest) has been killed as a pilot; Thomas Hudson drinks; he meets his first wife who is all he has ever wanted. “At Sea” is Thomas Hudson commanding the pursuit of some German U-boat survivors; the Germans die, and it may be that the wounded Thomas Hudson is about to too.
The three Parts part. According to Carlos Baker: “he hoped to make each section an independent unit. Later he would accomplish the welding job that would unify the whole.” But nothing could ever have welded these together—they desperately don’t fit, which is both why Hemingway had to write the book and why he didn’t publish it. The fissures can’t even be leaped, let alone welded. Part III is At Sea and so is the book. “There aren’t any answers. You should know that by now. There aren’t any answers at all.” But when Thomas Hudson says answers, Ernest Hemingway means questions.
Devious and secretive, Islands in the Stream is an elaborate refusal to say what is the matter with Thomas Hudson. It calls him Thomas Hudson throughout, which makes the reader’s relationship with him at once utterly stable and aloofly unadvancing. The book makes it impossible for us to know what is the matter with him (and so at the same time to know what was the matter with Hemingway) by an ingenious circumvention: it proliferates good reasons for him to be in a bad way. What—it asks incredulously—is the matter with him? Haven’t his marriages broken up? Doesn’t he still despairingly love his first wife? Aren’t all his sons killed? Isn’t his work as a painter threatened by drink and indiscipline? Isn’t he enduring the joyless dangers of furtive seamanship in a war which …