A living Hemingway memoir, flying in the face of self-pity ON BOOKS


Fruit that falls from a tree of greatness has a wounding tumble, a cliche insists. There's no end to the arguments about why great men and great women spawn far more cripples than giants. But cliches almost always have a point.

Now comes Lorian Hemingway, writing a book. She is the daughter of Ernest Hemingway's son, Greg, who separated from her mother when Lorian was just turning 6, in 1957. She didn't see him again until she was 16, when, having made contact, she found he was a profoundly and chronically depressed transvestite. They did not become close. She never met her grandfather.

Yet from early on in a childhood that was dreadful and a life that got worse, she felt driven or destined to write.

She has had a novel, "Walking into the River," published before this, and she has written for a number of newspapers and magazines and has had stories published in anthologies.

Now she has produced a book that is enchanting and excruciating, delicious and chilling, a memoir full of pain and courage - a drama of self-deception finally conquered by truthfulness. If nothing else about it worked - and a lot does - it is a blazingly affirmative testament of the human capacity for renewal.

Before that, she was a drunk. She puts it this way: "William James called alcohol the great paralyzer of conscience, and by the mid-eighties I had become a bombastic, conscience-free, ego-driven alcoholic, immune to subtlety, grace, and personal perspective. ...

I was, with the exception of having written anything I considered significant, pretty much a cardboard cutout of my grandfather during his last years."

The book is "Walk on Water: A Memoir" (Simon and Schuster, 250 pages, $23). There is a lot about fishing in it, a lot about drink and living poor and being footloose. But it is at its heart a book about life, fear, self, survival.

Spurning the fad

I have little patience with the poor-pitiful-me memoir fad of this age of victimhood and self-indulgence. Those confessionals seem to play well on celebratorily vulgar television talk shows, but make tedious reading.

This is not of that ilk.

Living with a debilitatively alcoholic mother and stepfather, Lorian Hemingway endured a lonely childhood in which the outdoors and streams and fish in particular were a lonely fascination, companionship and mystery at the same time.

She recalls older women, and later men, who were her outdoors companions, her sustenance. One was a marvelously strong and wise and simple woman known to all as Catfish - a name Lorian came to adopt herself. Later on, her grandfather's brother Les, a strangely but exuberantly joyful fisherman, became a cherished friend and companion.

Another early supporter was her mother's sister, Freda, who saved her life when she was 8 by shooting dead a water moccasin with an arrow while Lorian swam furiously to escape it in an Arkansas lake.

She writes with startling yet somehow soothing precision and discipline: "Freda was a dazzle, a virtual watercolor of a woman whose moods and mannerisms were as electric as her wild black hair. ... But beneath the pretty, jingling exterior, beneath her teasingly wicked eyes, lived a woman with unflinching nerve, a woman who, given the challenge, could murder. She'd tried once to kill my stepfather, whom she'd always referred to by his first and last names, Bill McClain, the two words run together in her odd accent so it came out 'Bimican,' sounding like a fungal cream. She hated Bill, he told me once, because he was taller than she. ..."

By 18, Lorian was a heavy drug user and a hard drinker. She was on the run and on her own. She spent her 18th birthday in jail for dealing narcotics. But then she fell in love and married and had a daughter and moved to the state of Washington. She cleaned up her life - a bit.

Passion, not fish

That marriage, and another, each lasted about seven years. But drink saturated her life. She moved much, and visited Florida and other fishing country a lot, and learned things from people who fish as a private religion.

The fishing is important. It permeates the book, but as a metaphoric armature or perhaps as a platform. The same passion, the same liveliness, the same honesty, I felt, could be done with many another theme: Painting, chess, paleontology. An appetite for life, for engagement, challenge, affirmation - for passion, not fish - is what the fishing stuff is about.

Now in her late 40s, Lorian Hemingway was brought up to deny any relation to her grandfather, but gradually was driven to a curiosity that approached fixation, and then finally to acceptance.

But not easily. Of Ernest, she writes: "When he murdered himself - for this was what it was, an act so violent I could never, in good conscience, refer to it euphemistically - I searched for some attribution to the process so I might know how this man I had never known, this blood of my blood, had come upon an alley so blind, so without illumination, that he had skipped town for good."

This is a book about addiction, and emergence from it, a book of resurrection after dangling at the precipice of self-destruction. It is a book about weakness and about strength and about the battle between them.

Familiar to most adult Americans, that story could be crashingly boring, self-indulgent - as are so many modern memoirs. But this one is told with such cleanness, such avoidance of self-pity, that it works. Lorian Hemingway sees and hears crisply, and reports very simply, going for truth.

Yes. Her grandfather would have been proud. In his best days.

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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