In his 1926 novel, “The Sun Also Rises,” Hemingway famously wrote, “Never be daunted. Secret of my success. Never been daunted. Never be daunted in public.” Generations of literary men – from Camus to Vidal – would follow his advice: A man’s man should write about masculine things, about bullfights and drinking, war and the nihilism of love, without apprehension.
The 15 essays in Eric Freeze’s Hemingway On A Bike offer a new perspective on what it means to be a literary man. Freeze’s topics range from bike riding to foosball to superheroes to Angry Birds, while he searches for understanding, slogging through the boggy waters of the mundane in an attempt to uncover truths about the human condition.
In the title essay, which is also the collection’s first entry, Freeze finds himself imagining the route Hemingway reportedly biked through Paris. He places the literary legend on a manly trip, speeding down soulless avenues and boulevards in search of brooding solitude, passing prisons and government buildings:
This was the way to do it. A sweaty, grunting American cruising along the holy artery of Paris. A big-jawed, burly foreigner, with the frame and temperament of a fur trapper, plucked from the Michigan woods and plopped on a bike on Napoleon III’s parade route.
Here, Freeze alludes to Hemingway’s stateside hunting and fishing trips, compares Hemingway to the namesake of France’s most formidable military power, and even goes on to speculate on Hemingway’s supposed refusal to wear a bike helmet. Yet side-by-side with this masculine language, Freeze opens up to apprehensiveness. Many literary scholars believe that Hemingway wanted to write about biking – in fact, Freeze begins the essay with a quote from one such scholar – but he never did. Why not? The rest of the essay struggles to answer this question. Finally, Freeze comes to the only explanation that can satisfy his obsession:
[For Hemingway], biking was like trying on a hat he’d seen in a window. It was a flamboyant hat with colors and textures he wasn’t used to. And after the first laugh, the first pointing finger, he took it off, held it in his hands. No, he’d say, giving it back to the shopkeeper. That’s a hat for someone else.
With that, Freeze sets the tone for the rest of his collection, preparing the reader for a thematic break from traditionally masculine topics.
Hemingway On A Bike is diverse and insightful. Freeze transitions seamlessly from one topic to the next. In “Freebirth,” he struggles to chronicle the home birth of his daughter:
The lexicon of birth is visceral; it’s a scene, a paragraph, a sentence composed of grunts and swaying hips and breaths and blood. As a man, I can never truly speak this language. How do I describe the poetry of my wife’s birthing body?
He attempts to answer his own question by writing about another of his wife’s creations: a book about the pros and cons of giving birth outside the sterile walls of a hospital. With this juxtaposition, Freeze is able to accept his limited role in childbirth by focusing instead on his wife’s struggles with writing – a process of which Freeze has intimate knowledge. The result is an essay that reestablishes his role as a necessary presence in his wife’s life despite his inability to truly relate to her experience of giving birth.
Many of Freeze’s essays deal with his obsessions and how they inform his daily experiences. Memories of his experiences as a missionary in France flesh out thoughts on current events. In “Angry Birds,” he attempts to explain his son’s infatuation with the popular game by comparing it to his own desire to restore houses, and in “Beard Card,” he humorously grapples with his own masculinity by recalling his failure to grow a beard resembling that of Denzel Washington in “Malcolm X.”
In the collection’s final essay, “On Intimacy,” Freeze offers vignettes of the various times, over the years, when he shared intimate knowledge with others, often naively violating the inherent trust of that intimacy. For the first time in the collection, Freeze breaks from his conventional first-person narration and addresses the “you” directly:
You’ve had me with you now for ages, lying crumpled in a backpack or on a desk with a pile of papers … I like to imagine us together at dawn or at night with the first or last rays of light flitting through your mini blinds … You crease the page, hold your fingers to your lips. I have told you my secrets. They’re here, along with the absences and all the stories I couldn’t bring myself to tell. I have changed the names, invented locales, and rearranged events. Writers tell me, this is something we do. We string sentences together and weave them between textless bands of white. They build through time, each word its own kind of violation.
This switch – the sudden direct conversation aimed at the reader – is jarring, but in the best possible way. With these final words, Freeze reaches off the page, nuzzles up to the reader’s ear, and whispers one of humanity’s most valuable secrets: Be daunted. Been daunted. Be daunted in public.