This long-awaited Hammett biography--""authorized and definitive,"" the only one with access to Lillian Hellman and many...



This long-awaited Hammett biography--""authorized and definitive,"" the only one with access to Lillian Hellman and many documents--begins promisingly. Johnson's introduction hints at a plausible psychological thesis: Hammett's anti-Father rebellion--in the work, the life, the politics. The opening chapter, a flash-forward to Hammett in prison in 1951, is spare and evocative--appropriate qualities in a prelude. But then, when Johnson (a gifted novelist) goes back to begin the story proper, she doesn't shift gears, doesn't ever, in fact, really settle down into the detailed, textured, analytical rhythms of full-scale biography. Thus, Hammett's first 24 years go by in eight pages. (That father-son relationship is barely mentioned.) The almost-dreamy novelistic tone--shifts between past/present tenses; mannered narration bordering on the glib, sentimental, and portentous--remains dominant throughout. (""He is about to begin his own major works. His life is half over."") There are only a few routine paragraphs of literary criticism, concentrating on The Glass Key; that psychological thesis is never explored, with unsatisfactory explanation of his self-disgust, of his failure to write after 1934: ""He could no longer make any sense of his life, but he also couldn't bring himself to put at end to it more directly than by drinking."" And though Johnson devotes most of this biography to Hammett's later, political years, his ""sincere"" Marxism (primarily inspired, it seems, by an early glimpse of hungry miners and Wobblies) comes across in bland, simplistic terms: ""He hoped, and even thought it possible, that a better system could right social wrongs. He was very American in his optimism and in his belief in equality. . ."" The Hammett here, then, is part enigma, part the clichÉd stubborn-idealist; extensive excerpts from letters emphasize his charm, his tenderness as a father, his relative decency towards ex-wife Jose. But the most vivid moments are those involving Hammett's alcoholism, his depression, his whoring. And even the fabled relationship with Hellman seems, sour, minor, remote--with some pathological elements that Johnson reports but makes no attempt to analyze. In sum--a large disappointment: often more eloquent than either the Layman or Nolan biographies, with valuable documentary/interview materials on (poorly integrated) display--yet disjointed, unfinished-seeming, and ultimately a sentimental blur.

Pub Date: Oct. 21, 1983


Page Count: -

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1983