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Jack Smith

It was a dark and stormy night and they were having this Imitation Hemingway Contest and . . .

March 18, 1985|JACK SMITH

We went out to Harry's Bar in Century City the other evening for the judging of the eighth annual Imitation Hemingway Contest, and it was a bacchanal, as usual.

One of the judges, Barnaby Conrad, was ill in Santa Barbara, and another, Jack Hemingway, the master's son, was fogged in at the airport in Salt Lake City; so we were reduced to Ray Bradbury, Digby Diehl, Paul Keye and me; plus our first woman--Bernice Kert, author of "The Hemingway Women."

We were to select one winner from 25 finalists out of the 2,500 entries from every state and several foreign countries. They were supposed to write one page of good bad Hemingway. There is no way to define what good bad Hemingway is. You have to have an ear for it. The best example, of course, is in Hemingway's own later work, in which he parodied himself.

The judges never agree on a first reading. Unanimous agreement comes only after a jostling of egos, collections of IOUs, and re-readings of one another's favorites.

First prize this time went to a Dallas journalist, Peter Applebome, who said in his autobiographical note that when he was a baby his parents had given him a copy of "The Old Man and the Sea" to chew on. "So profound was the experience that I was unable to speak a sentence with more than six words in it until I graduated from college. . . ."

The winner begins:

"In the late summer of that year we lived in a condo in North Dallas that looked across the tollway to the discos and honky tonks of the Rue St. Bubba. We were young and our happiness dazzled us with its strength. But there was also a terrible betrayal that lay within me like a Merle Haggard song at a French restaurant. . . ."

It falls, in the end, on a pun so grammatically grotesque that it cannot be read aloud, but must be seen to be understood:

"We went that summer to many clubs. We went to the Longhorn Ballroom and to the Palm and to a honky tonk in Fort Worth that was what Harry's Bar would have been like if it had 85-cent Pearl Beer and a barmaid whose peroxide hair could damage your eyes as if you had watched an eclipse. That night we visited them all, but as we drove home I did not think of the Pearl Beer and I did not think of the peroxide. I did not think of the girl who sat beside me. I thought of the woman of the tollway, and I could feel my heart pounding in the heat of the summer night. 'Stop the car,' the girl said.

"There was a look of great and terrible sadness in her eyes. She knew about the woman of the tollway. I knew not how. I started to speak, but she raised an arm and spoke with a quiet and peace I will never forget.

" 'I do not ask for whom's the tollway belle,' she said. 'The tollway belle's for thee.'

"The next morning our youth was a memory, and our happiness was a lie. Life is like a bad margarita with good tequila, I thought as I poured some whiskey onto my granola and faced a new day."

Almost everyone's second choice was "Rest in the Afternoon," by Richard S. Simons of Del Mar, a retired seismologist whose biographical sketch notes: "As a young man growing up in the jungles of Venezuela I was inoculated with large doses of Hemingway, Thurber and Twain. After 40 years of trying to emulate them I have managed to acquire Thurber's beard, Twain's fondness for bulls and Hemingway's talent for drawing people and small animals."

Simons' entry is a tour de force; a parody of Hemingway's style at his windiest, when he was linking his blunt sentences with ands to create great long sentences just like James Joyce or Henry Adams.

" . . . So you had to get rid of the flowery prepositional phrases and the big comfortable words and go in stripped naked except for the one weapon you were allowed to take in with you: the word and . You were allowed to use that to make a sentence longer if you wanted to and then it would look braver and more able to survive. You could, if you really wanted to, put in a lot of ands , and they didn't count, and with luck the sentence never had to end, you could go on and on, and tell the story that a man had to tell and say what had to be said about birth and love and death and whoring and women and whiskey, and do that with grace or arrogance or cynicism or however you wanted to do it, and never worry about whether the parts of your story really made any sense or even whether they went together syntactically, because ultimately the middle of a long sentence is like the middle of an ocean, you will have lost sight of both the shore that is behind you and the one that is ahead of you but in the end it doesn't matter because you are here except finally you are talked out and you don't want to say any more, or you have no more time for it and it is not good in you, but you don't know how to stop anymore, to turn the writing off and let the damned sentence die the death that it was meant to die. . . ."


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