There aren't a lot of things that I won't try to make light of, but I have learned there are times when funny won't fly. One such situation was on a tour of Elvis' Graceland. Reverence is demanded, and the tittering are unceremoniously removed from the tour line by pursed-lipped, bee-hive-coifed tour guidettes.
Here in Sun Valley, where Ernest Hemingway died by suicide 50 years ago, the Nobel Prize-winning author is nearly as big a draw with tourists from as far away as Japan who make the trek to stay in the Sun Valley Lodge room where he wrote parts of "For Whom the Bell Tolls." Many a scholar has tackled the image and the prose of the man, trying to reconcile the reality of his life with his superhuman image. No one took that more seriously, claims author Marty Beckerman, than he did. Though Beckerman's take is undoubtedly the most irreverent seen yet, it is arguably as well researched and thoughtful as any other good thesis on the man. "The Heming Way" will either inspire, disillusion or amuse you—perhaps all three—depending on your opinion of the man. Beckerman chatted with the Idaho Mountain Express between his doubtlessly meat-heavy Fourth of July celebrations. Quotes are from the book.
"A better time once existed. We can undo this calamity. All we need is a teacher, a savior. Not a messiah, but a mansiah. All we need ... is Ernest Hemingway."
"The Heming Way"
IME: What went into producing such a pitch-perfect parody? Was there an immersion process? CliffsNotes hunker down?
MB: To do parody well, you need to know your subject inside and out—even the most obscure references. So I read every major Hemingway novel, every short story and 15 biographies. A bunch of jokes about misogyny and alcoholism took a doctorate's amount of research.
"As a boy, though, Hemingway was a girl. His unhinged momma dressed him in pink gowns with flowered lace bonnets, forced him to grow his hair as long as his sister's—and encouraged him to play with teacups, sewing kits and dolls. This might, just might, have something to do with his lifelong quest to prove his manhood to everybody on earth."
IME: Were you coming at Hemingway as a fan or as a myth buster?
MB: I'm definitely a fan, but the Hemingway cartoon character—which he spent years creating and publicizing—is such a perfect target for parody because it's a ridiculous product of massive insecurity. Even though I have fun at his over-the-top persona's expense, I hope my book inspires young people who've never read "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "The Old Man and the Sea" to go back to the original sources, because I really love his writing. My generation barely has the attention span for YouTube videos of kittens playing with string, so it takes a shocking, humorous approach to get their attention. Hemingway would love YouTube videos of kittens playing with string, by the way, especially if they had six toes.
"At the age of three Hemingway was a precocious killing machine; while his peers scribbled with crayons and drooled on themselves, he could load, cock, and shoot a musket ... animals 'were made to shoot and some of us were made to shoot them,' because a truly moveable feast is no longer moving."
IME: Could this have been career suicide taking on such a literary icon? Was there a risk or are you just a savvy opportunist?
MB: Most Hemingway fans have a sense of humor about the guy and his trigger-happy, booze-soaked antics. This book isn't an attack on him; it's a loving tribute to a guy too eccentric and adventurous to exist in the modern world. We now spend our days on computers and tablets and smartphones 24/7 instead of exploring and enjoying the physical world. Everything we know comes from Wikipedia, but everything Papa knew came from experience, which is definitely worth emulating. Blasting our faces off, however, isn't quite worth emulating.
"Burial is better than boredom: 'When you stop doing things for fun, you might as well be dead.'"
IME: How did you know when to stop? Comparing Hemingway to Jesus leaves little wiggle room, but did you pull back in any way?
MB: A good joke is always going to offend somebody; that's the nature of satire going back thousands of years. You can write G-rated Popsicle stick jokes and offend no one, but you'll also make no one laugh, because humor is truth without safety pads. I struggled with this for a long time, because I'm a nice Jewish boy who just wants to make people happy, but ultimately it's more important to speak harsh truths than polite banalities.
"Unlike the average modern American, Hemingway knew that death isn't the worst thing in the world: 'cowardice is worse, treachery is worse, and simple selfishness is worse.' Dying on the job is better than shying from the job."
IME: You seemed to have embraced that sentiment. Will this go down as one of the great journalistic humiliations you mention on your website, or does this have its own category?
MB: I've been probed with a vibrating sex toy for journalism, covered with lab-grown sperm for journalism, and had my entire body waxed for journalism. In comparison, this book is something I can finally show my mother.
"'I spend a hell of a lot of time killing animals and fish so I won't kill myself.' In the end, Hemingway was his own final trophy."
IME: Would Hemingway ultimately approve? Have you heard from any in his camp?
MB: He said that writing parody was one step removed from writing graffiti above urinals, so he might have mixed emotions about it. But hey, I'm trying to get the Twitter generation interested in his books, which I have to think he'd appreciate.
"Men have a problem. We know in our hearts, in our DNA, that we are mindless, reckless, pleasure-seeking violent slobs. (This is not the problem.) But we are torn between masculinity and modernity."
IME: How have you "manned up" since the project?
MB: Honestly, all the Hemingway research makes me want to go hunting, which I've never done—
except for cockroaches in my New York apartment—because I no longer think it's ethical to eat an animal if you're not willing to kill it yourself. Hemingway spoke a lot about this. We delude ourselves into believing meat is just a product that comes wrapped in plastic at the grocery store, so we never fully appreciate what died for our sustenance. We're just paying others to do something we would rather not. So I want to prove to myself that I can do it, or else—by my own code of honor—I'd have to join PETA. And the only group I hate more than PETA is Alcoholics Anonymous!
"In its obituary, The New York Times predicted that 'generations not yet born of young men' would study Hemingway's masculine philosophy."
IME: Is there any subject too taboo to parody?
MB: Not if you're funny enough. Mel Brooks settled this question a long time ago.