Thorpe’s novel tells the story of a man in crisis on a pilgrimage to Hemingway’s grave.
Wes Haas is a novelist and professor challenged by the academy on his definition of “literary” and his inability to intuit the meaning of “competence.” In response, Haas has undertaken a road trip to Ketchum, Idaho, to see the grave of Ernest Hemingway, his earliest and most important influence as a writer. On the way, he picks up his son, Linus, a 13-year-old Haas hasn’t seen in nearly a year who lives with Haas’ ex-wife in Montana. As he rolls through the small towns of the northwestern United States, Haas is confronted with the myriad ghosts of his present and past: his failed marriage, his stagnant career, and his relationship with a mercurial ballet dancer named Aletheia. The result is a mashup of campus novel and road book, a movable inquiry into the crafts of writing and life, and a quest for, as the title implies, competence. The premise may seem a bit clumsy: readers may wonder if Hemingway isn’t the sort of writer whom the young are meant to love but then outgrow. Thorpe attempts to address this issue early on: “By reading short stories like ‘Big Two Hearted River’ and ‘Now I Lay Me,’ Haas learned the value of actual words that exist on the flattened sheet of paper, not merely intended ones…his pilgrimage to Hemingway’s grave did not then seem a stupid cliché to him, but a fitting tribute to a human being who had changed his life.” Even so, Thorpe isn’t doing the expected Hemingway impression of staccato lines and muscular prose (though Haas’ present narrative is intercut with flashbacks from his past rendered in Hemingway-esque italics). This is a novel about attempting to move beyond one’s influences and even moving beyond one’s past mistakes. Though the ghost of Hemingway hangs heavily over the book, Thorpe manages to carve out some admirable literary territory of his own. The reader discovers not a larger-than-life Papa Hemingway, but a relatable man coming to terms with his own adequacy in a world of vague expectations.
A short, resonant novel of masculinity and fatherhood.