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The Old Bastard

Some years ago, I was in a bar with acquaintances I’d met that night. They were debating who would win in a fight: Ernest Hemingway or Jay Gatsby. Their position was that Hemingway would clean Gatsby’s clock. They didn’t mean Gatsby, though; they meant F. Scott Fitzgerald, getting the writer mixed up with his most famous creation. (Should we all be so lucky.) Mr. Fitzgerald would probably decline to fight altogether, then get socked anyway. Gatsby, on the other hand, was a war hero and a bootlegger, and if it came down to it, he would trounce Hemingway in any fair fisticuffs, likely after Hemingway shot his mouth off while drunk.

The next day I was still thinking about it, and realized that Hemingway would actually win, albeit by underhanded methods, like hitting Gatsby with an empty whiskey bottle when his back was turned. I began imagining scenes of their face-off, Gatsby remaining a polite and courteous host, Hemingway growing increasingly drunk and belligerent. These musings became a series of tweets and then, when I still couldn’t get them out of my head, a short story, “WHAMMO.”

It was the first short story I’d written in a long time, having devoted myself to failed and unread screenplays for far longer than I should have. The story was silly and bizarre, a series of vignettes across a fictionalized Hemingway’s fictionalized life, the centerpiece being his fight with Jay Gatsby, who existed in the same universe for reasons unexplained. It was written in a clipped, precise manner that attempted to touch Hemingway’s own style, a third-person narrator coldly observing how this cartoon figure was a complete jackass throughout the entirety of a sad, meaningless life. It was disrespectful, unfair, vulgar, and worst of all, fan fiction.

I loved it, so of course I submitted it to The New Yorker. I felt any writer worth his or her salt needed a rejection from that bastion of old media, and I got it, after several weeks of waiting with realistic expectations (but still that glimmer of hope). That done, I submitted it to a local literary journal, confident my story was a shoe-in—It was so sad! so funny! so literary!—and saw it rejected literally overnight. I submitted it just before going to bed, and woke up to the rejection. I was too impressed by the efficiency to be disappointed.

I’ve never submitted the story anywhere since, though I’ve done a fair bit of tinkering on it. It was longer than the 5,000-word limit many lit mags have (according to my own anecdotal observations), and its current incarnation still pushes against that limit. It also features a copyrighted character from what I’m told is a lawsuit-happy estate, which makes me suspect most publications wouldn’t go for it, and would likely read it with “Who does he think he is?” in their minds (and not wrongly). I think the story gets past copyright laws as a fair-use parody, but hey, who’s got the money to prove it in court? Better to sit on it and wait until copyrights expire, sometime after Congress stops extending them, long after I am dead.

I’d like to say that writing the story gave me a deeper appreciation for Hemingway’s work. It didn’t. I haven’t read any of his stuff in more than half a decade. I like his work a great deal, what I can recall of it, but in writing “WHAMMO,” I concentrated more on the man himself. I researched Hemingway and his life (i.e., extensive Googling and recalling my visit to his house in Key West), and what I found made him seem like, well, a complete asshole. Then I took the asshole and made him a cartoon.

And that simplified him for me, in a way that made me feel sympathetic. Whether it was sympathy for the actual Hemingway, or for the asshole Hemingway that came across in what I read, or the fictional Hemingway I created in my writing, I can’t say. But in my mind, I saw the youthful Hemingway, full of idealism and romance, and I saw the older Hemingway, an irascible drunk, and I saw how the one became the other, and how they were one and the same.

This past May, I took a trip to Italy with my family. One of our stops was Lago Maggiore, an Alpine lake on the Swiss border. We spent a couple of hours in the lake town of Stresa, where my Lonely Planet guidebook said I could find the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees. It was there the young Hemingway had convalesced from his injuries in the Great War, and which became the setting for the final part of A Farewell to Arms. Walking around Stresa with my family, I felt the pull of the Grand Hotel, something telling me I had to go and pay my respects to Hemingway, to mourn what he’d suffered in his youth, and what would happen to him later on.

I didn’t have a chance to do so until ten minutes before we had to leave the town. I found the hotel’s location on our tourist map and thought I’d have enough time to walk there, find the bar, have a quick drink in homage to Hemingway (inappropriately, given his alcoholism), and then walk to our tour group’s meeting point. In the end, I didn’t have time for the drink. I got to the Grand Hotel, took a gander and couple of photographs, and soberly hurried to the next destination.

That night, I sat on the balcony of my room in a different hotel that looked out on Lago Maggiore. I could see the Grand Hotel from where I was, and I observed it while drinking brandy and writing on hotel stationery. Nothing important, just rambling, but enough to commune with the dead, completing a circle within myself. Maybe it was the brandy, but that night, I felt a sense of Hemingway the man, Hemingway the person who lived and existed, who suffered and wrote, rather than Hemingway the icon. I saluted that Hemingway, then finished my brandy, raising a toast to the man, the suffering, the words.

Justin Muschong is a writer based in Astoria, Queens, who has contributed to Resource Magazine and Newtown Literary. As a screenwriter, he has written films that have earned distinction at several international festivals, with his scripts winning recognition from Gotham Screen and Project Twenty1. He also serves as the Senior Editor for Samuel Christensen Law Firm. He tweets inanity @JustinMuschong.

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