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Vicki Hearne Meets Ernest Hemingway : THE WHITE GERMAN SHEPHERD by Vicki Hearne (Atlantic Monthly Press: $16.95; 224 pp.)

May 08, 1988|Carolyn See

I just wish Ernest Hemingway were still around in the Cosmos, bellied up to Harry's Bar and American Grill, so that he could have a nice talk with Vicki Hearne, author of "The White German Shepherd." She'd set him straight, and quick.

"You know," Ernest might say to Vicki, "you don't look half bad for a girl. Let's go out to another bistro, or better yet, let's take in a bullfight. Because as a character of mine once remarked in 'The Sun Also Rises,' 'Nobody lives their lives all the way up, except maybe bullfighters.' " At least he said something like that.

But Vicki would toss her head contemptuously: "I think you're mistaken, old man! Nobody lives their lives all the way up except dog trainers! Don't you know anything at all about the world? Only in the working of dogs do you see 'miracles as homely as milk.' I tried to explain it, and 'sometimes I think that maybe I was trying to talk about God, except when I heard other people talk about God. There's a way the light gets more real than anything, I see it mostly in the movements of certain dogs, all dogs but certain dogs especially, but you see it in paintings too, or I used to, when I wanted to paint. The light gets real, and for the sake of that light, training dogs is a matter of 27 hours a day and expensive.' "

Ernest might blink. "You sound like my kind of woman! You ought to write some of that stuff down. I could help you, maybe. I used to be a great American writer. People remember me for the close attention I gave to mundane detail. The sunlight on the scales of a newly caught fish, for instance, as it flops in the bottom of a shabby dinghy."

"Fish? Boats? Get real. Let's talk about cleaning dog runs, after you finish working the dogs: one person hosing down the runs, another following closely after, working the squeegee, so that in the lowliest job you contribute to a certain kind of perfection."

But by now the old master might be getting a little cranky. "Listen, lady! You're talking to a great American novelist! A white man! A member of the elite! So don't get smart with me! Remember what I did to the character of Robert Cohn in 'The Sun Also Rises'? Remember what I did to Margot in 'The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber'? I made Cohn look dumb not exactly because he was Jewish, but I made those two facts overlap, OK? And I made Margot less sensitive than a lion, because she was just a woman, so don't get smart with me or I might try a racial or sexist slur or two!"

"Anything you can do, I can do better," Vicki taunts her bar companion. "Because I am a dog trainer! So I am a member of the real elite ! I take the position that first comes the dog, like when I say, 'The dog is the ultimate authority.' Right after that comes the dog trainer. In my book, the bad people call people on my side 'Nazis.' But my side calls those bleeding-heart liberals 'humaniacs.' And I say that 'Dogs were better at being dogs, in Vietnam, than men were at being men. . . .' Do you get my drift? So Ernest, I think we're even, except that I come out ahead."

"Strong stuff, daughter! Is this a novel you wrote that we're talking about here? What's it about?"

"Two dog trainers train dogs for a living. They look for a white German shepherd, find it and train it for a movie. Then the lady dog trainer gets dumped by her stupid boyfriend and marries her partner. But that's not what it's really about. It's about ' . . . the quest or the imperfections of a possible order, a clearing, herding cattle, meals, sleep, loyalty to a few persons, because that was the only loyalty possible.' "

"Well, OK, but I bet it doesn't have any blood and gore. My work has lots of blood and gore, like when that Indian woman dies in childbirth and her blood drips down the wall in that Nick Adams story, or all that pus and stench when my hero gets infected in 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro.' "

"Get out of town! You're talking to a dog trainer ! How about this for blood and gore? 'This bite started as puncture wounds and became two rips down my arm as well, tearing what felt like assorted tendons but actually only one, in my hand, and there was the fat poking out of the punctures like a new, mutant worm.' And guess what? My heroine goes on, with a bite like that, and trains her dog, and gets married, and gets in tune with the universe!"

Vicki Hearne turns her back on the King of American Lit. She has taken him on; she has fought him fair; and she has won on all counts. And this is only her second book! And she has managed it all in the world of dog training. So Vicki smiles.

And Hem can only whimper, "Well, even though I've been dead for some time, my prose style was so distinctive that here in Los Angeles they've got something called the Bad Hemingway Contest. Because you can recognize my prose from a mile away and it's pretty lofty stuff."

But Vicki knows she has the old man on the ropes, and quotes tauntingly from her own novel about dog training: " '. . . That situation is already artificial enough to obscure the knowledge of how deeply you can and will fail a great-hearted dog, and if it is your own dog and great-hearted . . . then the demons would jitter-jitter-jitter death. . . . ' "

But here Hemingway stands up and moves to the door of the bar. "Vicki, I . . . gotta get out of here. I'm going to hunt later this afternoon, ski, fish, something like that."

So Vicki's left alone, in the golden afternoon light of Harry's bar. She orders up another fine from the bartender. "Bud, did you know that nobody lives his or her life all the way up except dog trainers?"

"Well, miss," the bartender answers respectfully, "wouldn't it be pretty to think so?"

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