Saturday, September 29, 2007

A letter to 'Ernie'


Dear Ernie,

Why'd you have to go and shoot yourself, all those many moons ago? You were such a talent and would have made a hell of an old man.

I remember trying to read you as a kid, gazing at the novel, impressed by the words, but unable to understand it. Then came college English and the story of the dying writer in Africa. God, how wonderful that was, and is.

A year later, I took your story about the Fiesta in Pamplona to the lake over Memorial Day weekend. I sat on the deck, enthralled, ignoring the bluegill, barely moving until it was finished.

Then came the beaches of Florida, which put me in mind of your beloved Key West, and thus meant a trip also to the local book shop, to find your beautiful story of the first World War. I think I fell a little in love with Catherine myself that spring, not to mention in love, too, with language, writing, the craft of it as a vocation.

A year or so ago, I somehow gathered the gumption to revisit the Pamplona story. For years I had feared this, afraid a re-reading would spoil that first, virginal experience. It did not.

Somewhere along the way I found your short stories, Ernie, and am convinced that is where your true talent lay. Nick Adams, up in Michigan, is the finest of American letters. Let anyone say with a straight face there's something better and I'll punch them senseless out in the street, all in your honor, of course.

My favorite is "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." How fine that is, Ernie. How simply, wonderfully fine. A better understanding of the human condition, of what makes a man hurt inside, does not exist.

There are others. Francis Macomber. The hills like white elephants. Even Harry Morgan and his rum running is good, in its way.

Reading your biographer James Mellow's words this morning makes me yearn to point the Xterra southward, toward Miami and beyond, not stopping until I reach the corner of Greene and Duval. You know where I mean.

Or jaunt off to Pamplona in July. Do I dare run with the bulls? I know I could lose myself in the cafes and at the bullfights, hoping that my own Lady Brett Ashley awaits me there.

One last book awaits, my own personal Kilimanjaro, a journey I've yet to endure. It's the Spanish war book, Ernie, and I don't know why I've yet to read it. I have this crazy theory -- you would, no doubt, call me a fool over it -- that one reads books when one is supposed to, that the words and the moment meet for a strange and wonderful rendezvous in the mists of your mind, right at the perfect time for you both.

I don't know. It will happen soon, Ernie. It has to happen soon.

I think often about those last days in Ketchum, when the Black Dog had become a vulture, (or maybe more appropriately a hyena), attached to your bones in its horrific way. And when it all became too much, when you'd at last lost the final battle with the life you lived so well, did you meet the end with the grace of your characters? Or was that, too, just a lie?

Whatever the case, Ernie, you'll always be the writer of that lost generation. Scotty, Pound, Dos, Gertrude, Sherwood -- none of them can touch you now. You belong, like Lincoln, to the ages, forever tangled between the man and the myth.

Only your words remain, the best, last legacy of any writer's life.

Sincerely from a big fan,

Jake

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