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The Hemingway Files. By H. K. Bush. Blank Slate Press, 2017. Pp. 357. Paperback. $15.95. ISBN 978-1-943075-32-4.
The genre of literal literary thriller may be somewhat restricted, a notable exception being Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” or even an oxymoron, but H. K. Bush’s The Hemingway Files is well-crafted, strong testimony to its validity, richness and attraction. The action in this book is more internalized than in one of Jonathan Kellerman’s popular mysteries, but the building tension and story convolutions are no less compelling. Bush’s ability to write prose that pulls the reader, willingly, and eagerly, into multiple exotic cultures of ethnicity, history and literary studies, with interwoven elements of romance, mystery, and adventure, renders this novel a tour-de-force begging the question, where has this novelist been hiding in plain sight?
Bush’s novel is a frame story, narrated by English professor Martin Dean, who relates the tale of his deceased former student Jack Springs. The novel begins with a package which arrives at Dean’s university office containing, among other intriguing items, a manuscript of Springs’s unpublished story, “a box full of nothing but words,” to quote the dead Springs. As Dean describes it, “There may have been madness in the box–but as I eventually learned, method as well”–a series of more mysterious boxes within the box, each to be opened in chronological order with one labeled “Open me last, after reading the story.” The story unfolds with revelations about an enigmatic Japanese Professor Goto of American literature who is also a well-heeled literary collector. Goto, the aged scion of a Japanese family of established wealth and power has a life-long interest, not only in the words of the great writers, but in the original letters and editions of their works that are the tangible representations of his passion, which crosses the line into obsession. Jack Springs, a recent PhD searching for a position, is invited to enter this world through a teaching fellowship in Japan which, unknown to him, has been engineered through the influence of powers which will impose strictures on his life and subject him to moral dilemmas beyond his imagining.
An important element in this tale is what Goto terms the “narcotic” of collecting, “very much like a kind of religion . . .” (p.184), impelling him to enlist his vast network of resources in search of literary artifacts. It is a search Goto likens to that of Ahab’s hunt for the white whale, tacit acknowledgement of the focused nature of obsession, a force that has the potential to blur the boundaries of morality. Goto’s acquisitions include rare first editions of American literary classics, unpublished manuscripts and previously unknown letters, including a cache of correspondence between Mark Twain and his friend and pastor Joseph Twichell, that empower Goto with their secrets. If Goto’s methods are at times questionable, conscripting Jack Springs, through their mentor-student relationship into acts raising ethical quandaries, his passion is at least understandable. Goto relishes his capacity to connect himself on a sometimes intimate level with giants like Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, and Mark Twain, just as a music collector, playing an original 78 pressing of Sun 209, with its ingrooved hisses and pops, replicates the thrill of the Memphis teenager being enthralled by the same succession of rhythmic wailings during hot summer nights in 1954, listening to Elvis singing “That’s All Right.”
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