At one time, I was a pretty big Ernest Hemingway fan. I still am, I suppose, though I haven't read any of his books in a few years. I'm looking at my bookcase, and there's 10 Hemingway books over there, most of which I read at some point, some I haven't, but really ought to. In high school, I probably liked Hemingway because of the subject matter: the wars, the bullfighting, fishing, drinking, all that manly type stuff. Same reason I read Jack London at that time, I imagine. Still, there was something about his style I appreciated, a directness that appealed to me. Hemingway got to the point, which was how I wrote essays. I included enough information to support my point, but unlike my friend Jesse, I wasn't going to include every single relevant fact I could recall*.
I've never been able to quite describe that appeal, but Terry Mort summed it up perfectly in The Hemingway Patrols. On page 61, he discusses Hemingway's tendency to become an expert on any subject which caught his interest, the better to write about it in his works. He quotes Hemingway discussing how if a writer knows enough about a subject, he can leave out details while discussing it and the reader will still grasp them, even without having them directly stated. Mort's summation is that 'Properly crafted, the writing was not only lean and efficient, but also evocative and suggestive.'
The book isn't just about Hemingway's writing, though with his tendency to draw from his own experiences (usually with embellishment), his writing is a part of it. The crux of the book is the time Hemingway spent in 1942 and 1943 patrolling the waters off the coast of Cuba in his fishing boat, Pilar. He was searching for U-boats, German submarines, which were taking a toll on shipping at that time. Mort covers Hemingway's life prior to this, his time in Italy in World War 1, his time in Paris, his writing in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, his failed marriages**, as well as touching on his life after this period of time, up to his eventual suicide.
Mort writes in such a way that we understand that searching for U-boats is not just some isolated incident, but connected to Hemingway's experiences up to then, his beliefs about the universe***, the characters he tended to write about. There are times I think Mort plays armchair psychologist too much (early one, he mentions a quote by Hemingway about what happens when one reaches the pinnacle of their life, and later muses that while on the bridge of his ship, Hemingway probably thought about how he was past that point), and I can't say whether I think he excuses Hemingway's actions too much. I believe he's trying to be moderate, pointing out that Hemingway was difficult to live with, that he antagonized the FBI in Cuba unnecessarily (though that may have been related to the paranoia that characterized his depression near the end of his life), that there was no call for some of the dismissive comments he made about F. Scott Fitzgerald, who had helped him early on. At the same time, he defends Hemingway from some of his critics, particularly Martha Gellhorn, whom Ernest was married to at the time****. Mort makes it clear that the two were horribly matched to try and have a persistent relationship, and it sounds to me like they would have been better off only occasionally meeting, then going their separate ways once more. I think Mort, while recognizing Hemingway's foibles, also has an appreciation for Hemingway's strong individualist streak.
Mort draws frequent parallels between Hemingway and characters or scenes from his works, both things he had already written by then, and things he would write afterward (Islands in the Stream draws heavily from this time period). So this leads into the discussion of the life cycle of the Hemingway Hero, and which characters occupied which parts, and where Hemingway might have sat at this time himself. Mort also includes sections which detail specific missions by specific U-boats, and an idea of what the situation was like along the Atlantic, Gulf, and Caribbean coasts at that point, partially to explain Hemingway's motivations, or perhaps to explain why the U.S. would authorize a civilian naval scouting force (dubbed the Hooligan Navy). I found the third chapter, which dealt heavily with the Spanish Civil War (and the early stages of Hemingway and Gellhorn's relationship) interesting as well. I hadn't realized it had been such a muddle of political groups on the side resisting Franco and his fascist allies. Tortskyists, Stalinists, anarchists, and poor moderate Republicans, just to name a few.
In a way, the actual searches for U-boats are almost incidental, perhaps because there's only one time when Hemingway might (I stress might) have even seen a U-boat, so there's not much action to be gleaned from them. Mostly they fished (so as to appear to be an ordinary fishing boat to any observing U-Boats), drinking, and playing cards. Which they would have done anyway*****. But the stories of how Hemingway planned to attack a U-boat if they caught one, the fact he and his friends actually trained at shooting Thompsons and chucking grenades, the fact that when they were patrolling for possible hidden supply dumps, he brought his 2 youngest sons along, and when the cave they explored grew too narrow, sent the boys ahead alone, those bits are interesting. Admittedly, Mort can only extrapolate as to why Hemingway might do these things, since you probably can't trust his own writings on the subject (what with the tendency to embellish and all), but it does make for intriguing reading.
* Which explains why Jesse tended to get higher grades than I did. We're talking A versus A-, but he did score better.
** Which tended to fail because he couldn't or more likely wouldn't remain faithful. Also, he tended to want to assert his personality and interests on his partner, and that's only going to be allowed so far. I like his writing, but I'm not sure I'd like him as a person.
*** Which seems to have been that the universe is random, and can be cruel, so best to be active while you can, since life may be snatched away at any moment.
**** Gellhorn doesn't strike me as a likeable person, either. She despised what she termed objectivity shit in writing, but at the same time was contemptuous of people who she felt rewrote history for their own goals, something she was guilty of herself. So a hypocrite, as well as someone concerned with suffering of the lower class mostly in the abstract.
***** Which Mort theorizes was part of Gellhorn's problem with the whole thing. She didn't think things were that bad around Cuba, and thought Hemingway was just using it as an excuse to get away, goof around, avoid writing, and drink. As to the last one, at one point, Mort comments that Gellhorn should have known by then that Hemingway needed no excuse to do that. I chuckled.