Book Review: The Sun Also Rises By Ernest Hemingway (1926)

The Sun Also Rises My name is TJ Dietsch and I have a confession to make: I just finished my first Ernest Hemingway novel at the age of 31. Yes, I majored in English and yes, I consider myself a good reader even though I stick to a smaller group of beloved modern authors when I decide to focus on a book. However, when I was looking at the Amazon Kindle ebook deals sometime last year, I jumped at the chance to add Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises to my library. It took a while to get to and through this book, partly because I was reading it while lying next to my kid’s bed as she tried to fall asleep and partly because I didn’t like it very much.

Told from the first person POV of Jake, an American living in Paris and working for a newspaper, Sun follows him as he goes to bars, travels around Spain and pines for a woman who can’t/won’t/doesn’t love him. After half the book, Jake and a group of his friends decide to go see the bullfights which exacerbates the problems in their group dynamic. From what I’ve read, Hemingway was going to write an article about bullfighting, but instead decided to write a story featuring analogs for his pals. And to that I say, Hemingway’s friends must have been insufferable.

I’m torn between loving the things these people do and hating the people doing them. There’s something so romantic about being an expatriate who gets to take long, extravagant vacations in Europe, but there’s not a likable character in this novel aside from Montoya, the guy who runs the hotel in Spain.

Jake’s okay but when you think about it he’s just a facilitator for these other people to get together. He doesn’t stand up for himself or go after what he wants so what good is he? Brett (Jakes love interest, sorta) doesn’t care about who she hurts, Mike’s a drunken jerk, Bill’s a smarmy intellectual and Cohn’s a lovesick, obsessive doofus. I get why this lifestyle would have fascinated to people in the 20s/30s, especially because it seems so far outside the norm of going to work, coming home, being with your family and that’s about it, but to a modern reader it feels like a Bravo reality series. Think about it, a bunch of people who don’t really like each other go on a vacation which intrinsically leads to fights, betrayal and a showcase of their lack of perspective. Real Expatriates Of Paris, anyone?

This will sound lazy, but I found myself wishing that this was a movie instead of a book. Like I said, the ideas are fascinating and set in lush locales, but I’d rather see them than read Hemingway’s sparse descriptions. In this book he has a tendency to go into more lush detail at times when I just wanted things to move along story-wise, especially after they all leave Spain. At that point, I just wanted it to be over, I was done with these people and didn’t want to hear about the amazing places they got to drive through. Plus, were this a film, I only would have spent 90 to 120 minutes with these characters I dislike instead of the weeks it took me to read the book.

Even with these complaints though, I don’t want to make it sound like I don’t respect Hemingway as a writer. I understand how influential and important he is/was to the world of writing and get the mystique surrounding him. The Sun Also Rises feels true and honest. It’s real and raw, but it reflects that reality by engaging characters I’m not particularly interested in. I’ve also read a bit about Hemingway’s minimalist nature when it came to writing and appreciate the style even if it makes following the parties in a conversation a bit more difficult.

I realized about 2/3 of the way through this novel that it reminded me of another famous author’s first book: Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary. Both are about newspaper men who travel to exotic locales, throw themselves into local events, lose women they’re attached to in some way and drink a bunch. I much prefer Rum Diary though because while it might have been influenced by Sun, it features far more interesting characters, especially in the lead.

I wish it went without saying, but this is the internet and I know full well it doesn’t, but it’s important to note that my liking or disliking of something does not always relate to the thing’s quality, which is a distinction not enough people make. The Sun Also Rises is a well-crafted novel filled with realistic people. They’re just the kind of people I wouldn’t want to share a bus ride with let alone an international vacation, that’s all. This also doesn’t put me off all Hemingway. I just need to find something he wrote that’s not filled with vapid jerks. Any suggestions?

Ambitious Reading List: The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson

I know Hunter S. Thompson is a pretty big deal for a lot of people, but not me. I don’t mean that to be disparaging to the author by any means, I have just never read any of his works or seen the film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas which a lot of folks adore. Of course, I’ve always been curious, even after a giant of a man in a stained purple T-shirt told me he was Thompson’s nephew one evening at a gas station in Delaware, Ohio (where I went to college). That’s a story for another time. Anyway, when I walked by the old free table at Wizard a few years back and saw Thompson’s The Rum Diary, a book I had never heard of, I was intrigued, but not enough to dive right in. Even though I generally gave up on my Ambitious Reading List, I did go back to this one recently because I was interested.

The irony of me finding a book about a man moving for a job in publishing only to find himself wondering if he did the right thing, drinking a lot and watching his workplace crumble around him, is not lost on me. To get into a little more detail, our main character Paul Kemp leaves New York to work in San Juan Puerto Rico in the late 50s. He’s a newspaperman and finds himself surrounded by fellow newspapermen who either don’t care, care too much or drink too much as he explores his new home. Paul becomes friendly with some folks like photographer and short time roommate Sala who is good at what he does, but seems to hate everything and Yeamon a man with a short temper and a girlfriend named Chenault.

Here’s the thing about The Rum Diary, it seems to be less about an arc in a character and more about a period of time for a character. Sure, he goes through some things and thinks about some things–specifically whether he’s already washed up at a pretty young age and if he wants to continue on working and drinking his way throughout the world–but the story ends because his job does and it’s time for him to move on. There’s also some potential problems with the law that forced him out, but that’s another matter. It actually took me a while to get invested in the book and even when I did, it was because I could relate to the ideas even if I didn’t really like the characters I was reading about.

Don’t get me wrong, though, I enjoyed this book a lot. But, I think it’s more because I can relate to a lot of the sentiments expressed therein. I imagine anyone whose ever wondered about their place at their job or their station in life can relate, but, seriously, if you’ve ever worked for a magazine, website or newspaper that crumbled before your eyes or flat out shut down, then you absolutely need to read this book.

If you’re interested, the history behind The Rum Diary is actually kind of interesting. See Thompson went down to San Juan himself and started writing this book after talking to a bunch of journalists in the area. That was in 1959. No one wanted to print the book. Fast forward about ten years and Hunter started to make a name for himself. The book didn’t actually get published until 1998, though. Pretty interesting stuff.