Friday, February 05, 2010

Craig McDonald's Print the Legend

Once again, Craig McDonald covers some tricky territory, though this time it's more circumscribed than in his previous outing, which crossed a number of continents as well as decades. Though Print the Legend moves about a bit, it is, for the most part, set in Hemingway's hometown where a literary conference celebrating the great man is taking place. Okay, so there are few subjects potentially more tedious than a narrative about a bunch of critics gathered together at a literary conference. But, hey, why not; after all, we know that critics can be a cut-throat bunch, and here they are that with a vengeance.

But point is, McDonald once again pulls it off. Because Legend is much more than mere David Lodge-noir. Here we're on the cusp between modernism and post-modernism, between Hemingway or the pulp-literary fiction of McDonald's protagonist, Hector Lassiter, and something about to appear on the horizon, whether in the guise of feminism or metafiction. While deconstructionism was not, as portrayed in Legend, in vogue amongst critics in the mid-1960s, it still packs a punch and puts one in mind of the Gramsci quote, something along the lines of "the old world is dead and the new world has yet to be born."

The plot of Print the Legend (the title of course comes from Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance- "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.") revolves around stolen and fake Hemingway manuscripts, and the possibility that Mary might have murdered Hem. Trailing Hemingway, as well as Lassiter is a renegade FBI agent-novelist based on spook-writer E. Howard Hunt (Hunt wrote several novels and even received a Guggenheim in 1946 for his pulp spy and crime fiction). While I found the link between Hemingway and J. Edgar somewhat tenuous, we do know that Hoover did have a file on Hemingway that went back to the Spanish Civil War, as well as on the likes of Hammett, Dorothy Parker, Tennessee Williams, EB White, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Dreiser, Mailer, etc., etc..

I have to admit that Print the Legend didn't grab me straight off. It took about a hundred pages before I was really into it, at which point I was hooked and found myself looking forward to reading about the weird but ultimately tragic, Mary Hemingway, Hector and the various spooks and critics, both synophantic and competitive, who would as soon bury Hemingway as explicate him. Though there are some uneven spots early on, and it's neither as complex or labyrinthine as Toros and Torsos (which Hector is apparently writing in the latter stages of Legend). Likewise, it lacks the latter's scope and scale. Nevertheless, the last section of Legend is every bit as intense as anything in Toros. I like McDonald's ambivalent approach to Hemingway, and it's impressive that he can get so much mileage out of the great man, using him as a launch pad to examine the culture and particular epochs. And, as I've mentioned before, McDonald is one of the few writers who can move comfortably within a post-Ellroy framework of historical crime fiction, prompting at least this reader to go back to some of his sources. Always interesting and, in the end, engaging, I'll be interested in where he goes once his Hemingway period has been exhausted.

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