The Short Happy Life Of Francis Macomber by Ernest Hemingway, 1936
The magic trick:
Taking us inside each man’s mind to give us a clear understanding of their manliest man contest
The first thing most modern readers will likely notice here is the absurd gender politics at play. Oh, and race. And basically everything. In every possible way, this is a relic of a ridiculous time, when white men obsessed about how to out-white-man their fellow white man. Nothing about the stakes or the conflict here deserves your concern. It’s just plain idiotic.
We’ve got that out of the way.
The second thing you’re likely to notice is holy hell this is amazing writing. I mean, really, seriously, a master working at the highest of levels. If you can suspend your sense of morality and adapt your mindset to temporarily caring about this kind of world, then you’re in for a treat.
Hemingway does a really cool thing bouncing back and forth between the thoughts of Macomber and Wilson. The bulk of the story is told with third person narration. But in key moments we get a window into the minds of each man. This is where the real competition is playing out.
Notably, we do not get much of an idea about what Margot – Mrs. Macomber – is thinking. Her thoughts don’t much matter. She is a pawn in this game. Or rather she isn’t a participant as much as she is the referee or the scoreboard. Scoreboard is probably the best metaphor. Her actions and comments are how the men measure their contest.
I told you, it’s stupid.
But once you’re into the world of this little drama, it’s nearly impossible to pull yourself away.
And that’s quite a trick on Hemingway’s part.
“I’m sorry,” Macomber said and looked at him with his American face that would stay adolescent until it became middle-aged, and Wilson noted his crew-cropped hair, fine eyes only faintly shifty, good nose, thin lips and handsome jaw. “I’m sorry I didn’t realize that. There are lots of things I don’t know.”
So what could he do, Wilson thought. He was all ready to break it off quickly and neatly and here the beggar was apologizing after he had just insulted him. He made one more attempt. “Don’t worry about me talking,” he said. “I have a living to make. You know in Africa no woman ever misses her lion and no whiteman ever bolts.”
“I bolted Iike a rabbit,” Macomber said.
Now what in hell were you going to do about a ma.n who talked like that, Wilson wondered.
Wilson looked at Macomber with his flat, blue, machine-gunners eyes and the other smiled back at him. He had a pleasant smile if you did not notice how his eyes showed when he was hurt.
“Maybe I can fix it up on buffalo,” he said. “We’re after them next, aren’t we?”
“In the morning if you like,” Wilson told him. Perhaps he had been wrong. This was certainly the way to take it. You most certainly could not tell a damned thing about an American. He was all for Macomber again. If you could forget the morning. But, of course, you couldn’t. The morning had been about as bad as they come.
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