While on vacation in Key West, John Baird, a Hemingway scholar, meets a conman named Castle in a bar. After telling Castle about Hemingway’s missing manuscript, Castle suggests that they forge it and make a lot of money. Baird refuses, of course, but Castle enlists Baird’s wife Lena and the two of them talk John into creating a forgery. Under pressure from his wife and his rapidly dwindling finances, John goes along with the plan but, unbeknownst to his co-conspirators, he makes a backup plan to protect himself in case of detection. Meanwhile, Lena and Castle are working another angle and the stage is set for betrayal, adultery, and murder.
Up to this point, Joe Haldeman’s short novel, The Hemingway Hoax, is a thriller, and it’d make a great movie. But Haldeman throws in a science fiction element involving Hemingway’s ghost, time travel, parallel universes, and metaphysics that will probably disappoint some readers because the hoax scheme was compelling enough without it. When the strange stuff starts, the focus of the story changes from the hoax to the parallel universes and readers who were hoping to see John create and publish a successful forgery will be disappointed.
However, fans of the Weird will appreciate the PKD-style deviation from the expected course of events, though they would probably like a few more explanations, including one for why each alternate universe John inhabits gets more violent. (The obvious explanation is simply that it increases the reader’s tension and allows Haldeman to add some explicit sex and violence scenes). Some readers will probably be irked that Haldeman is vague about why John Baird has certain abilities in parallel universes or exactly how Hemingway’s writings are so vital to the omniverse, but I enjoyed thinking about this possibility and the effects that literature could have on world history.
The Hemingway Hoax suffers slightly (at least from my perspective) from a lack of likable characters. At first it’s easy to appreciate John Baird, a mild-mannered academic who really wants to do the right thing. Later, though, we’re disappointed to learn that he’s just as willing to betray his wife as she is to betray him.
Overall, The Hemingway Hoax is entertaining if you go in knowing to expect it to turn weird and, eventually, gory. A shorter version of The Hemingway Hoax was originally published in 1990 in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine edited by Gardner Dozois and it won both the Nebula and Hugo awards for best novella. I listened to the audio production created by Audible Frontiers which is 4.5 hours long. It’s introduced by Joe Haldeman and excellently narrated by Eric Michael Summerer.