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Jack Smith

Ask not how many m's are in 'accommodation,' for on rugged Kilimanjaro there is nary a dictionary

March 18, 1986|JACK SMITH

We went out to Harry's Bar in Century City the other night for the annual judging of the imitation Hemingway writing contest.

I have been a judge now for seven years, and the reason I do it is for the company and conviviality of my fellow judges.

Also, I think it is a good thing to encourage people to write one page of good bad Hemingway--the idea being to echo that clear, spare style of his and to add some humor.

It isn't easy, as we find out every year when we bore through the 30 finalists from a field of 2,600 entries. Most of them are low on style, charm, humor and structure. I worry that Hemingway is turning in his grave.

I only hope that more students and struggling writers will take heart from this and try it themselves; the prize is a trip to Harry's Bar in Florence, Italy, for two.

For once, all seven judges--Ray Bradbury, Barnaby Conrad, Digby Diehl, Jack Hemingway, Paul Keye, Bernice Kert and I--agreed on the winner.

He turned out to be Mark Silber, a New York City advertising account executive.

"I currently manage two accounts," he said in the obligatory biographical note. "One is Minute Maid frozen dessert products, the other is a nonprofit organization called the National Foundation for Ileitis and Colitis. If you think it's hard selling people yet another frozen dessert, just try selling them ulcerative colitis some day. . . ."

In his entry, a man has come to Kilimanjaro, with a woman, to gather ideas for a cycle of haikus he is writing. We find him on the mountain, dying of dysentery complicated by writer's block.

"Now he would never write the things he had saved to write until he learned to spell them. For instance, 'accommodation.' One c , two m's , or the other way around? He wasn't sure. Or 'chrysanthemum.' On rugged Kilimanjaro there was not even a dictionary.

"He could taste Death in the wind. He could hear it tiptoe around the campsite. He could see it climbing a tree, hiding in a garbage can, tripping over a root. Clumsy Death. . . .

"He wished he had never left his comfortable job at Harry's Bar, where he had made good money as a cocktail waitress during a confused period of his adolescence. Yes, that was another story he would never write, mainly because he couldn't even pronounce scampi grigliati , let alone spell it. For him there was but one haiku left to write.

"I came for ideas

"But instead I'm going to die

"You rotten mountain. . . ."

In a runner-up by Paula Van Gelder of Los Angeles, our hero is a surfer whose Kilimanjaro is the Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu. He feels death breathing on him, sitting on his Nikes. In his delirium he has a nightmarish vision of Century City:

"Now in his mind he was at Harry's Bar and he was drinking with a Roumanian who said he knew the guard of the President at the hotel that was across the wide avenue; and the woman in the department store was demonstrating a pasta maker and a Cuisinart; and the woman near the escalator was asking him if he would come to the preview of a new major motion picture but she could not name the stars; and the smell of sweat was coming from the gymnasium where the men sat on the rowing machines with stereo headphones on their ears; and they were filming a beer commercial at the bank across from where the flowers were planted with a fence running through them to keep the blond secretaries from crossing the road without a traffic light. . . ."

As usual, several entrants played variations on the lovemaking of Robert Jordan and Maria in "For Whom the Bell Tolls," when the earth shook.

Runner-up Patricia Brodin of Minneapolis used the metaphor of language:

" 'Tell me it is good even if it is not very good,' she said.

" 'I will tell you how it is, Daughter,' he said and he ran his hand over her right leg.

" 'Papa, tell me it is good and that someday I will know all the tenses and know of the irregular verbs and even of the little words that sometimes end with o and other times end with a and we will be happy. . . .'

" 'Even so,' he said, 'and we will conjugate together.' "

An earthier version was offered by Michael A. Cowell of Anaheim Hills:

"The black dog came to them at the base of the mountain. It was a great beast with massive jaws and teeth as thick as two fingers. He looked at the girl but there was no fear in her.

" 'Was it good for you?'

" 'As never before.'

"Her dark eyes flashed with pride as they searched his and found only truth."

There is talk of going to Florence, Italy, for the judging next year.

They say the scampi grigliati there is fine.

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