"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Lines I Wished I’d Written: From “Fifty Grand” by Ernest Hemingway

This is not one of Hemingway’s great short stories, but it’s damn good.  The whole story revolves around money and the business of boxing.  The story is 90 percent dialogue, and what fine dialogue.  I’ll present this extended passage.  Jack Brennan is an aging boxing champion faced with what will be his last fight, and he knows he’s going to lose.  He can’t sleep for a week, and so decides to get drunk the night before the fight, just so it can relax him and put him to sleep.   I don’t know what year this story was written, except that it was around the 1930’s.  $50,000 in 1935 would be worth $674,000 in 2013 dollars according to an economic inflation calculator.  That’s just so you get a feel for how much money is being discussed.   

One thing that’s curious is that Hemingway sometimes transcribes the dialogue in the present tense, especially for Jack.  Notice how for the most part it’s “I said” or “Jack said,” but every so often it’s “Jacks says.”  It’s certainly not a slip up.  It’s consciously done.  I just can’t figure out what Hemingway means or suggests by it.  The story is told in first person from a friend of Jack’s named Jerry Doyle.  They are at Hogan’s training camp. 

We put on our coats and started out.  It was quite a way down to the main road and then we walked along the main road about a mile and a half.  Cars kept going by and we would pull out to the side until they were past.  Jack didn’t say anything.  After we had stepped out into the bushes to let a big car go by Jack said, “To hell with this walking.  Come on back to Hogan’s.   

We went along a side road that cut up over the hill and cut across the fields back to Hogan’s.  We could see the lights of the house up on the hill.  We came around to the front of the house and there standing in the doorway was Hogan.   

“Have a good walk?” Hogan asked. 

“Oh, fine,” Jack said.  “Listen, Hogan.  Have you got any liquor?” 

“Sure,” says Hogan.  “What’s the idea?” 

“Send it up to the room,” Jack says.  “I’m going to sleep tonight.” 

“You’re the doctor,” Hogan says. 

“Come on up to the room, Jerry,” Jack says. 

Upstairs Jack sat on the bed with his head in his hands. 

“Ain’t it a life?” Jack says. 

Hogan brought in a quart of liquor and two glasses. 

“Want some ginger ale?” 

“What do you think I want to do, get sick?” 

“I just asked you,” said Hogan. 

“Have a drink?” said Jack. 

“No, thanks,” said Hogan.  He went out. 

“How about you, Jerry?” 

“I’ll have one with you,” I said. 

Jack poured out a couple of drinks.  “Now,” he said, “I want to take it slow and easy.” 

“Put some water in it,” I said. 

“Yes,” jack said.  “I guess that’s better.” 

We had a couple of drinks without saying anything.  Jack started to pour me another. 

“No,” I said, “that’s all I want.” 

“All right,” Jack said.  He poured himself another big shot and put water in it.  He was lighting up a little. 

“That was a fine bunch out here this afternoon,” he said.  “They don’t take any chances, those two.” 

Then a little later, “Well,” he says, they’re right.  What the hell’s the good of taking chances?” 

“Don’t you want another, Jerry?” he said.  “Come on, drink along with me.” 

“I don’t need it, Jack,” I said.  “I feel alright.” 

“Just have one more,” Jack said.  It was softening him up. 

“All right,” I said. 

Jack poured one for me and another big one for himself. 

“You know,” he said, “I like liquor pretty well.  If I hadn’t been boxing I would have drunk quite a lot.” 

“Sure,” I said. 

“You know,” he said, “I missed a lot, boxing.” 

“You made plenty of money.” 

“Sure, that’s what I’m after.  You know I miss a lot, Jerry.” 

“How do you mean?” 

“Well,” he says, “like about my wife.  And being away from home so much.  It don’t do my girls any good.  ‘Who’s your old man?’ some of these society kids ‘ll say to them.  ‘My old man’s Jack Brennan.’  That don’t do them any good.” 

‘Hell,” I said, “all that makes a difference is if they got dough.”   

“Well,” says Jack, “I got the dough for them all right.” 

He poured out another drink.  The bottle was about empty.   

“Put some water in it,” I said.  Jack poured in some water. 

“You know,” he says, “You ain’t got any idea how I miss the wife.” 


“You ain’t got any idea.  You can’t have an idea what it’s like.” 

“It ought to be better out in the country than in town.” 

“With me now,” jack said, “it don’t make any difference where I am.  You can’t have any idea what it’s like.” 

“Have another drink.” 

“Am I getting soused?  Do I talk funny?” 

“You’re coming on all right.” 

“You can’t have any idea what it’s like.  They ain’t anybody can have an idea what it’s like.” 

“Except the wife,” I said. 

“She knows,” Jack said.  “She knows all right.  She knows.  You bet she knows.” 

“Put some water in that,” I said. 

“Jerry,” says Jack, “you can’t have an idea what it gets to be like.” 

He was good and drunk.  He was looking at me steady.  His eyes were sort of too steady. 

“You’ll sleep all right,” I said. 

“Listen, Jerry,” Jack says.  “You want to make some money?  Get some money down on Walcott.”

“Listen, Jerry,” Jack put down the glass.  “I’m not drunk now, see?  You know what I’m betting on him?  Fifty grand.” 

“That’s a lot of dough.” 

“Fifty grand,” Jack says, “at two to one.  I’ll get twenty-five thousand bucks.  Get some money on him, Jerry.” 

“It sounds good,” I said. 

“How can I beat him?” Jack says.  “It ain’t crooked.  How can I beat him?  Why not make money on it?” 

“Put some water in that,” I said. 

“I’m through after this fight,” Jack says.  “I’m through with it.  I got to take a beating.  Why shouldn’t I make money on it?” 


“I ain’t slept for a week,” Jack says.  “All night I lay awake and worry my can off.  I can’t sleep, Jerry.  You ain’t got an idea what it’s like when you can’t sleep.” 


“I can’t sleep.  That’s all.  I just can’t sleep.  What’s the use of taking care of yourself all these years when you can’t sleep?” 

“It’s bad.” 

“You ain’t got an idea what it’s like, Jerry, when you can’t sleep.” 

“Put some water in that,” I said. 

Well, about eleven o’clock Jack passes out and I put him to bed.  Finally he’s so he can’t keep from sleeping.  I help him get his clothes off and got him to bed. 

“You’ll sleep all right, Jack,” I said. 

“Sure,” Jack says, “I’ll sleep now.” 

“Good night, Jack,” I said. 

“Good night, Jerry,” Jack says.  “You’re the only friend I got.” 

“Oh, hell,” I said. 

“You’re the only friend I got,” Jack says, “the only friend I got.” 

“Go to sleep,” I said. 

“I’ll sleep, “Jack says.

Now these aren’t intellectuals speaking.  The dialogue is so true; it’s as sharp as a dramatist.  It reminds me very much of my Brooklyn upbringing, only Hemingway’s characters are bit more taciturn than the people I grew up around.  Read the story to find out how it turns out.  It’s not quite what one expects, but very much concludes the theme.

No comments:

Post a Comment