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Nick Adams

December 9, 2008

I just finished reading The Nick Adams Stories, by Ernest Hemingway. My roommate got it for me, along with two other “manly” books of short stories, for my 29th birthday. (Thanks Steve!)

Man, what a book. I’ve read some Hemingway before—I guess just The Sun Also Rises, though maybe another; I forget—but this one really bowled me over. I know it’s probably cliched and old-news to say, but reading this book really has revolutionized how I think about short stories.

One story, “Big Two-Hearted River,” particularly struck me. Not much happens in it. Nick Adams gets off a train in some burned-over country, and then hikes into unburned country near the river where he makes camp. He cooks, he thinks about a friend, and the next day he fishes.

All the while, downriver, there’s a swamp. Nick kind of warily eyes the swamp out of the corner of his mind. In the preface to the collection, Philip Young writes of this story that, “Put where it goes chronologically, following the stories of World War I, its submerged tensions—the impression that Nick is exorcising some nameless anxiety—become perfectly understandable.”

One of the things in the story that resonated with me was how, at Nick’s camp, his mood seems balanced on some sort of knife edge. I know that feeling, the feeling of taking pleasure in some simple thing one is doing while at the same time it all seems very fragile and about to tip over.

Hemingway writes:

He started a fire with some chunks of pine he got with the ax from a stump. Over the fire he stuck a wire grill, pushing the four legs down into the ground with his boot. Nick put the frying pan on the grill over the flames. He was hungrier. The beans and spaghetti warmed. Nick stirred them and mixed them together. They began to bubble, making little bubbles that rose with difficulty to the surface. There was a good smell. Nick got out a bottle of tomato catchup and cut four slices of bread. The little bubbles were coming faster now. Nick sat down beside the fire and lifted the frying pan off. He poured about half the contents out into the tin plate. It spread slowly on the plate. Nick knew it was too hot. He poured on some tomato catchup. He knew the beans and spaghetti were still too hot. He looked at the fire, then at the tent, he was not going to spoil it all by burning his tongue. For years he had never enjoyed fried bananas because he had never been able to wait for them to cool. His tongue was very sensitive. He was very hungry. Across the river in the swamp, in the almost dark, he saw a mist rising. He looked at the tent once more. All right. He took a full spoonful from the plate.

I don’t know. I remember, as I said earlier in these pages, walking down the street feeling good and then catching myself. Trying to order everything, turn on a dime, precision. Balancing.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Jake Freedom permalink
    December 10, 2008 3:08 pm

    Mmm. Yeah.

    I like that. Hemingway is definitely my favorite fiction writer. He is so careful with his words, and he writes in the exact way that my mind thinks.

    Good stuff.

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