'Hemingway's Chair' - by the numbers

May 31, 1998|By Ben Neihart | Ben Neihart,Special to the sun

"Hemingway's Chair," by Michael Palin. St. Martin's Press. 288 pages. $23.95.

Monty Python actor Michael Palin's first novel, "Hemingway's Chair," is a mildly delightful romantic comedy, a generous, sweet book that is instructive to all budding writers in that unforgiving genre. Its successes and failures are like examples in a textbook.

The integral parts are all here, ready for film adaption: 1) Setting: an old-fashioned post office in a small, kooky English town called Theston. As in any good sitcom, there are a half-dozen rooms in which most of the action occurs. As in Proust and Austen, minor characters show up where you least expect them, to admirable comic effect.

2) Hero: His name is Martin Sproale. He's a mild-mannered postal employee obsessed with Ernest Hemingway. He has red hair, lives with his mother. He's "chronically passive, irretrievably agreeable, painfully inept, one of those obliging individuals who would go out of the way to help anyone but himself."

3) Rival: A good romantic comedy works up a rivalry. Here, we've got the best kind: Martin's boss, Nick Marshall, is younger, faster, stronger. He's devious, too. He wants to modernize the postal service, and make some money at it. Old-fashioned Martin fights him. By the time the book's over, it will be either stand-up Martin or driven, empty Nick who's still standing.

4) Romance: Martin falls for a dark, chain-smoking American who, it so happens, shares his Hemingway obsession. At first -- surprise! -- they can't stand one another. Soon enough, though, sparks fly. This girl, Ruth Kohler, is one of the book's consistent pleasures. She's a dry, self-deprecating intellectual who -- of course -- aches to fall in love.

5) Gimmick: Hemingway is the gimmick. Martin and Ruth bicker about Hemingway the way characters in Proust bicker about turn-of-the-century Parisian actresses: They know more than the general reader, but we learn some juicy bits just by hearing them talk. Martin collects Hemingway relics; his bedroom is a shrine. In passionate moments, Hemingway's spirit enters him, like this: "Martin lowered his head and when he raised it again it seemed heavier and his narrow shoulders rose, went back and widened to accommodate it." Ruth, to her surprise, is aroused by the change in Martin, aroused when he becomes Papa.

Romantic comedy is tough to pull off. Timing is everything. In the novel, as in film, timing tends to crystallize during editing. The lovers, the foils, the jokers and the foes take their places. They all want the stage, and it's up to the writer, the editor, someone with a cold heart, to make sure they don't talk too long.

Alas, "Hemingway's Chair" just misses the mark. There are a few too many wacky minor characters. There are a couple dozen flat jokes in the one genre where every line of dialogue should sparkle. Scenes drag a page or two too long, draining precious energy. Description for description, there's a little too much lazy writing, passages like this: "Sex with Ruth had been exciting. He had never been as close and intimate with anyone before. He had never let anyone do what she did for him before."

Romantic comedy is never vague. Romantic comedy is excellence of execution. It's Jane Austen. When it's perfect, you can't stop reading it. When it's not perfect, all you can do is wish that it was.

Ben Neihart is the author of the novel "Hey, Joe." His fiction has appeared in the New Yorker. "Burning Girl," his new novel, will be published in April 1999.

Pub Date: 5/31/98

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