Set in Cuba and Key West, against the background of prohibition, the Great Depression and the spread of communism, To Have and Have Not, as the title suggests, is about the difference between the rich and the poor. The first half of the novel focuses in Harry Morgan, a tough, often cruel rum runner who works the Gulf Stream. He’s in the classic Hemingway mold, but is neither as noble nor as colourful as some of the author’s more beloved protagonists.
After a rich passenger stiffs him for a season’s work, Harry is forced to take a job smuggling ‘ Chinamen’, typical of the dangerous assignments he feels he has to take on to feed his family. At this point, the theme is subsumed by the exotic setting of Cuba and the adventure of the smuggling trade.
When he returns home to Key West, the perspective shifts and we get to see the lives of the other working poor, the ‘Conchs’, whose lesser cunning keep them in greater poverty than Harry. The lack of real change in the voice, though, makes this transition somewhat confusing and unconvincing. Hemingway’s voice is strong but inflexible.
At the local bar, Richard Gordon, an alcoholic, womanising writer, is introduced, along with his long-suffering wife, and well-heeled friends. They and various other Key West toffs gradually take over the narrative, reaching a crescendo in a chapter that switches between half a dozen characters in various states of affluent misery. Shallow, chronically unfaithful and parasitic, they are contrasted with Harry and his ilk’s desperation, self sacrifice and fidelity. Not that it’s a black and white depiction: the ‘have nots’ are frequently violent and drunken, although in an almost affectionately comical way, while the ‘haves’ that are fleshed out are somewhat sympathetic, especially the women.
Throughout runs Hemingway’s fixation with fate, death and suicide that is always sadly prophetic considering the author’s ultimate end.
The unpredictable shifting of perspective creates an experimental structure that is not entirely successful. There’s some good writing in there, of course, but it all feels a bit hobbled together, like it’s searching for focus. This means that To Have and To Have Not feels more lazy than daring. Not bad, but definitely not Hemingway’s best.