The Crook Factory by Dan Simmons (audio)

Directly after Mrs. Hemingway, I began this one, only subconsciously recalling that its subject matter was similar: a novel about Hemingway’s life. Such is the level of my Hemingway obsession that I keep these things lying around and forget I have them at all…

The Crook Factory gave me rather more trouble than the last one, though. This is a spy thriller about Hemingway’s life during the early years of American involvement in WWII, when he lived in Cuba and took his boat, the Pilar, out hunting for German submarines in the Gulf. He was basically playing at spy, and my impression from various biographies is that his activities were a little silly. In his afterword, though, Dan Simmons informs his reader that much of the story he tells here is based in historical fact. He says that the documentation of Hemingway’s activities in the early 40s are still classified to this day, which I confess is suspicious: to my mind, why classified, if there were nothing serious going on? So that’s interesting. Maybe we are all guilty of not taking Hemingway seriously enough.

FBI Agent Joe Lucas narrates this novel, looking back after decades – after Hemingway’s 1961 suicide – to recall his brief acquaintance with “the writer” (often referred to as such) in 1942-43. This flashback is told in present tense. Lucas has been sent down to Havana by Director J. Edgar Hoover to keep an eye on Hemingway as he plays spy on his thirty-eight-foot fishing boat, hunting German subs and trying to intercept radio transmissions. Hem has put together a ragtag group he calls the “Crook Factory,” of amateurs including little boys, local bartenders and Spanish exiles – and Lucas, who figures he’s been put out to pasture on this ridiculous mission. Lucas is derisive in his dismissal of Hemingway’s silly games; but serious things keep happening, and he keeps wondering why these seem like important events when of course they could not be… and this incredulity lasts long enough to strain my own faith in Lucas’s character, as he’s supposed to be this great agent and simultaneously awfully slow to figure out that the Gulf action is real deal, man.

This book has a few things going for it: an incredibly unlikely, wild, action-filled story; Hemingway’s undeniable charisma; name-dropping Ingrid Bergman, Gary Cooper, Ian Fleming, John F. Kennedy, Marlene Dietrich, and more. Putting Hemingway in one’s own fiction is tricky, though. The man was so nearly a caricature of himself that it’s too easy to write him as one; but the man in real life forced people to take him seriously, too, so he walked a fine line between ridiculous and deadly serious, that many writers find difficult to properly evoke. I’ve read maybe a dozen fictionalizations of him, and I’d say half or so get it right. Simmons’s Hemingway does not ring true for me. The reader drives me a little crazy; he strikes the right note for the hard-boiled spy-thriller, I suppose, but I don’t think he does Hemingway well. The man comes out sounding kind of high and nasal-y, which doesn’t feel right at all. (There aren’t many recordings of Hem’s voice, but they do exist.) Part of this is the reader, but part of it too is Simmons’s writing of the man. It feels like he couldn’t decide whether he was satirizing Hem or taking him seriously. And Gellhorn here is a nagging shrew – this, more the author’s fault, although again I’m not crazy about the way she’s performed – which I don’t think is remotely fair. She was a strong woman – the most independent of his wives – and they certainly fought, but this screeching nag felt wrong.

I was frequently frustrated as well by the silliness of the plot, but again, with Simmons’s afterword I feel a little chastened – I don’t feel qualified to quibble with the line between fact and fiction here. I’ve read several Hemingway biographies, but it’s been years, and none of them focused especially on these years. Simmons certainly offers a wilder version of this episode than I’d read before. It felt like fiction, but fact is stranger than.

While on that topic, though, I want to note the dialog between the Hemingway character and that of the narrator Joe Lucas, an FBI man with no patience for fiction. Hem defends his novels and the truer-than-true nature of fiction, saying “that’s why I write fiction rather than fact.” Wait, what?? Is Simmons unaware of the nine full-length works of nonfiction published by Hemingway, including the canonical A Moveable Feast and Death in the Afternoon?! The man decidedly wrote both fact and fiction. For goodness sake, he got his start in journalism. Simmons lost a lot of credibility in that line.

The plot is strong, if a bit incredible. Characters are shaky; Lucas himself felt a bit overdrawn, as well as my concerns about Hem. And Simmons may be a bit too invested in detail: FBI dossiers, the finer points of codes and code-breaking… I think the story could have been exciting, and more engaging, at two-thirds this length, or less. I found myself involved enough to stick it out, which is no small thing with this audiobook of twenty-one hours. I repeatedly thought about quitting, but I stuck around, because I wanted to see what happened. So I guess that’s an endorsement of sorts. Certainly, my interest is piqued about the events in question.

Pretty mixed review on this one. For a Hemingway completist like myself, it’s worth a try. Simmons has many fans; maybe you’ll love him, too.


Rating: 6 five-letter sequences.

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