Thursday, June 21, 2007

Strange Tribe

John Hemingway begins his family biography with his childhood, when he looked upon his father, Greg Hemingway, as the "man who braved the ocean's fury and lived to tell the tale". This is the story of the Hemingway family, from the grand patriarch Ernest to his offspring and his grandchildren. It's an uncomfortable territory to step into--one that exposes the dark underbelly of a clan that produced one of the world's best known writers. For John, Ernest's grandson, it isn't only an attempt at revisiting the past, but also an effort at making sense of the "strange tribe".

The book broaches many taboo themes--themes that have been uncharted because they don't sit comfortably with the Hemingway archetype of the stoic man who must display "grace under pressure". Not only are Greg's cross-dressing and transsexuality exposed, but an elliptical analysis of Ernest's sexuality is also undertaken. John picks The Garden of Eden, the story of an American writer David Bourne and his wife Catherine, who "engage in a series of what might be defined as 'transvestic' or gender-bending experiences". He quotes several Hemingway biographers to draw the portrait of an artist who was willing to experiment with the androgynous in his fiction.

Through the length of the book, there is an attempt on the part of John to draw judgments from Ernest's life and apply them to understand Greg's bewildering facets. He writes: "Like Ernest, Greg struggled for most of his life to deal with his own contradictions and to create a balance between the hypermasculine and the hidden female sides of his personality."

Difficult as it may seem, John manages to keep the spotlight on his own troubled relationship with his father instead of making Strange Tribe another biographical sketch of Ernest. He describes a time when their relationship came to hinge upon who gets to keep Greg's Subaru. When one reads that John and his girlfriend Ornella emigrated to Italy only because he had been threatened by Greg to return the car, it is difficult to not look at the move as a way of escaping the family name and its accompanying demons.

In spite of this, John pays a moving homage to his father in the final chapter. He extols him as the ideal Hemingwayesque man, who showed true grit and courage in the face of insurmountable personal problems. While he concedes that it hasn't been easy for him either, he is thankful that he was not struck by crushing mental illnesses like his father and did not have to grow up under Ernest's intimidating popularity. Speaking of Greg, he concludes: "In the end, he didn't kill himself and leave me with the feelings of inadequacy and blame that the children of suicides often feel. Taking seriously Ernest's words that 'courage is grace under pressure,' he avoided the 'family exit'."

This book is a candid and remarkable look at the Hemingway tribe.

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