Book Review: The Sun Also Rises (Unless You’re Black, Jewish Or Privileged)

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“I’m 34, you know. I’m not going to be one of those bitches that ruins children.”

Lady Brett Ashley’s decision to not “ruin” children with settling down and raising a family works out just fine for her. She is one of a long line of literary Delilahs who turn male characters insane with adoration. Another one is Gatsby’s Daisy. There are more – the early 1900’s were littered with them. For some reason these hapless foolish fellows fall deeply in love with women in words who lead them into their dens of promises and false hopes, only to crush them before the story’s end. The early 1920’s seemed a rough time for men desperately in love. And blacks. Jews too.

Ernest Hemingway’s ode to the “Lost Generation” is a full tank powering debauchery, excess, bigotry and emotion. Based on snippets from his own experiences, it covers the high and low escapades of Jake Barnes and his fellow expatriates from France to Spain. Among the set is the aforementioned Brett, a promiscuous lush who seems to share a special love with Jake. Alas, it’s a love that won’t go anywhere because a war wound has left our protagonist dysfunctional in the bedroom. And since Brett can’t seemingly separate love from sex, the two don’t have a future. It’s sad, really, because throughout the novel, they are two ships making sure to often pass each other in the night.

Barnes is otherwise level-headed, well-to-do, and has normal experiences when his friends aren’t around. Along for the ride are the one-dimensional Bill, Jewish college buddy Robert Cohn, and Brett’s fiance’ Mike, a very angry drunk from Scotland. Together they travel Europe drinking liquor on just about every page, while every man but Bill pines after Brett. It starts off as one hell of an entitled life but eventually half the crew runs out of money. But they have a great run lulling through long days in cafes and taverns until two events take center stage: The running of the bulls changes the story and Cohn’s love for Brett becomes overbearing.

I should include a third facet, actually. Racism is a strangely defining element of this novel. For instance, there’s an innocent enough scene where Jake and a minor friend are shooting the breeze over drinks when they start referring to this black guy with a heinous racial slur. It’s all very casual, and glaringly repetitive, almost as if they’re referring to him by name. It comes out of nowhere and is presented as normal. This must last half a page. And that’s just the beginning. Poor, smitten idiot Robert Cohn is Jewish and undergoes all manner of hostile and wanton bigotry from his so-called friends. Wow! It may be indicative of the time, but all it does is prove to me that I’m glad I wasn’t around during said time.

That’s what we’re reading – a story about a band of racists living a privileged existence and acting more bratty about it than an episode of “My So-Called Life.” And the way it’s written can often be worth a giggle if you’ve seen “Midnight In Paris.” Hemingway’s prose of long, stacked sentences mirror Corey Stoll’s delivery as Hemingway from that stellar film. Extensive and loosely connected clauses come off as long-winded and my brain often runs out of breath before getting to the period. An example:

“It was a warm spring night and I sat at a table on the terrace of the Napolitain after Robert had gone, watching it get dark and the electric signs come on, and the red and green stop-and-go traffic-signal, and the crowd going by, and the horse-cabs clippety-clopping along at the edge of the solid taxi traffic, and the poules going by, singly and in pairs, looking for the evening meal.”

Get used to that style. It’s the Hemingway Hallmark.

As a wholly inconsequential character study in how not to appreciated a kickass life, this book is a runaway success. All these folks do is travel, sit around chillin’, get stupid drunk, and lament about it all. Main character Jake is the only one I really cared about. Him and Cohn. Bill is a little boring because he’s a lot like Jake, a character we already have. It would’ve been easy to feel for Mike, a dude who has to sit around watching horny-toads flock to his girlfriend like dogs to raw meat. But his mean drunkeness and racial tirades against Cohn cancel all that out. Brett runs through men like a steamroller right in front of her future groom and accepts zero responsibility for her actions, making her a tough sell. In truth, most of these people are trials to identify with. Yet, I still managed to enjoy the read, mostly about the stuff in Paris because I’m an admitted Francophile.

As I said, the book is patterned after Hemingway’s true life sights and sounds. The people in the photo above are apparently his muses. Lady Duff Twysden, Harold Loeb and Pat Guthrie inspired the characters Brett Ashley, Robert Cohn, and Mike Campbell. Twysden must’ve been quite the heart-breaker, a trail of male hearts in her wake, ripped and shredded for her amusement. And Loeb, the lovesick goofus who sits there in his spectacles awaiting his next bigoted attack. And how about that Guthrie, on the far right? Think he’s annoyed that Twysden sits sandwiched between the two potential lovers? I wonder how they liked being presented in their pal’s novel. Because, according to me, these aren’t the most flattering of depictions. But, then again, that’s just my point of view. If there’s any truth to this piece, they’d have an equally low opinion of me in return. So, fair is fair, yes?

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