Amazon sales commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project,
University of California, Berkeley, CA.
The following review appeared 8 January 2018 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2018 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
The genre of literal literary thriller may be somewhat restricted, a notable exception being Poe's "The Purloined Letter," or even an oxymoron, but H. K. Bush's The Hemingway Files is well-crafted, strong testimony to its validity, richness and attraction. The action in this book is more internalized than in one of Jonathan Kellerman's popular mysteries, but the building tension and story convolutions are no less compelling. Bush's ability to write prose that pulls the reader, willingly, and eagerly, into multiple exotic cultures of ethnicity, history and literary studies, with interwoven elements of romance, mystery, and adventure, renders this novel a tour-de-force begging the question, where has this novelist been hiding in plain sight?
Bush's novel is a frame story, narrated by English professor Martin Dean, who relates the tale of his deceased former student Jack Springs. The novel begins with a package which arrives at Dean's university office containing, among other intriguing items, a manuscript of Springs's unpublished story, "a box full of nothing but words," to quote the dead Springs. As Dean describes it, "There may have been madness in the box--but as I eventually learned, method as well"--a series of more mysterious boxes within the box, each to be opened in chronological order with one labeled "Open me last, after reading the story." The story unfolds with revelations about an enigmatic Japanese Professor Goto of American literature who is also a well-heeled literary collector. Goto, the aged scion of a Japanese family of established wealth and power has a life-long interest, not only in the words of the great writers, but in the original letters and editions of their works that are the tangible representations of his passion, which crosses the line into obsession. Jack Springs, a recent PhD searching for a position, is invited to enter this world through a teaching fellowship in Japan which, unknown to him, has been engineered through the influence of powers which will impose strictures on his life and subject him to moral dilemmas beyond his imagining.
An important element in this tale is what Goto terms the "narcotic" of collecting, "very much like a kind of religion . . ." (p.184), impelling him to enlist his vast network of resources in search of literary artifacts. It is a search Goto likens to that of Ahab's hunt for the white whale, tacit acknowledgement of the focused nature of obsession, a force that has the potential to blur the boundaries of morality. Goto's acquisitions include rare first editions of American literary classics, unpublished manuscripts and previously unknown letters, including a cache of correspondence between Mark Twain and his friend and pastor Joseph Twichell, that empower Goto with their secrets. If Goto's methods are at times questionable, conscripting Jack Springs, through their mentor-student relationship into acts raising ethical quandaries, his passion is at least understandable. Goto relishes his capacity to connect himself on a sometimes intimate level with giants like Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, and Mark Twain, just as a music collector, playing an original 78 pressing of Sun 209, with its ingrooved hisses and pops, replicates the thrill of the Memphis teenager being enthralled by the same succession of rhythmic wailings during hot summer nights in 1954, listening to Elvis singing "That's All Right."
One of the most enjoyable facets of this novel for this reader is the immersion in Japanese culture, history, etiquette and language, which provide the unique backdrop for Bush's tale. A budding romance between Jack Springs and Mika, niece of Professor Goto, is only one of the additional impelling plot elements. Insights into Japanese culture, literary scholarship, and obsessive collecting are set against the contrasting background panoramas of old Japan, in the Kobe region, modern Tokyo, and nearly inaccessible mountain monastic retreats. And, as if to underscore the authenticity of the Japanese experience, the reader, through Jack's words, has an insider's view of the horrific chain of events and devastating destruction and death accompanying the great Kobe earthquake.
The romance between Jack Springs and Mika, niece of the godfather-mentor Goto, is as impelling as any of the plot elements of The Hemingway Files and underscores the clash of cultures that is a critical component of the novel. Their mutual attraction builds slowly and steadily within the restrictions of well-defined cultural boundaries that have thwarted Oriental-Occidental love matches since Puccinis Madame Butterfly or James Micheners Sayonara (1954), later made into a film (1957) starring Marlon Brando, also set in the Kobe area of Japan.
The cross-currents of interest in Japanese and American literature, one of the primary structural elements of Bush's novel, are well known to many Mark Twain scholars. Anyone attending the quadrennial international conferences on Twain studies held in Elmira, New York, has witnessed the strong interest in Mark Twain by Japanese scholars and is aware of the not-so-coincidental fact that one of three journals devoted exclusively to Twain scholarship, Mark Twain Studies, is published in Japan. Readers of this review may also be aware of one of the classics of Twain-related cross-cultural scholarship, Mark Twain in Japan (2005), by Professor Tsuyoshi Ishihara of Tokyos Waseda University.
Bush, who is known to most Mark Twain Forum subscribers as "Hal" is a professor of English at Saint Louis University, a former Fulbright Senior Scholar in Freiburg, Germany, and formerly Senior Fellow at Waseda Institute of Advanced Study in Tokyo. A scholar in the area of Mark Twain studies, he is the author of Mark Twain and the Spiritual Crisis of His Age (2007) and Continuing Bonds with the Dead: Parental Grief and Nineteenth-Century American Authors (2016). The Hemingway Files is his first novel.
Without his professional immersion in the world of literary scholarship, Bush may not have been equipped to write a novel with such an exquisite eye for detail set in the world of academics. On the other hand, the pacing and rhythm of Bush's tale and his ability to slowly and steadily create and maintain the tension and intrigue pervading The Hemingway Files suggests a possible career alternative should his day job at the university not work out. It would be tempting to label this novel a literary masterpiece, but that would be damning with faint praise. This novel is a great story, an intriguing mystery with well-crafted character studies in exotic locations. The experience of reading this work elicits a hearty "Domo Arigato."
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Martin Zehr is a psychologist at the Marion Bloch Neuroscience Institute in Kansas City, Missouri. His novel, The Desplazados, was published in 2017 and was described by _Kirkus Reviews_ as "A journey of reawakening and self-acceptance, well worth the trip."