To Have And Have Not by Ernest Hemingway (1937) 262 p.

I had two misconceptions about To Have and Have Not. The first was that it’s widely regarded as Hemingway’s worst novel and even the author himself said he only wrote it for the money. I’m not sure where I picked that up, because as far as I can tell it received mixed reviews and the only suggestion that Hemingway disliked it comes from an interview with Howard Hawks, a director who adapted it for film in 1944, and claimed that Hemingway told him it was “a bunch of junk.” The second misconception was that it was based on the short story “After the Storm,” one of my favourites from The First 49 Stories. But while “After The Storm” is very similar – involving a rough-and-tumble boat captain in the Gulf of Mexico – To Have and Have Not is actually apparently based upon two different stories, which were incorporated into the book.

To Have and Have Not follows Harry Morgan, a forty-something American skipper who divides his time between Key West and Havana and makes a living by chartering his boat for ventures ranging from fishing expeditions to human trafficking. You can tell pretty early that it was developed out of a couple of short stories, because it’s a patchwork novel; it begins with a couple of disparate sections in which Morgan smuggles Chinese immigrants and then a load of rum, oddly switching between first person and third person perspective, and then it warms up to the crux of the novel – a scene in which the Cubans he agrees to smuggle back into the country rob a bank in Key West first and then essentially hijack him. This critical part of the novel is an example of Hemingway at his finest, and even the earlier segments, while unnecessary, were enjoyable in themselves. It’s a shame that during and after this mid-novel climax, Hemingway decided to focus on a bunch of extraneous characters back in Key West who are going through marriage break-ups and bar arguments are various other things that are not as remotely interesting as the lethal conflict between a skipper and his hijackers in the middle of the sea.

To Have and Have Not is a flawed but enjoyable Hemingway novel, with subtle Marxist undertones (hence the title) and a particularly vivid setting – you can almost feel the Cuban sun on your arms and see the light dappling on the Caribbean water. (Or maybe that’s because I read most of it on a beach in Western Australia.) When it’s good, it’s truly great – it’s just a shame that those moments are uncommon. There’s a very good short novel in here, encrusted with a bunch of other rubbish that simply didn’t need to be there. If Hemingway truly did think this book was “a bunch of junk,” he only had himself to blame.