Ernest Hemingway is an American writer that needs no introduction. Since the mid-20th century, his works have been read, taught, and widely admired. However, his reputation as the “tough, white, gun-toting, patriarchal” figure has also earned him quite a bit of criticism. Regardless, his creative genius and intriguing character continue to be a point of fascination, as seen in recent works like the PBS documentary Hemingway (2021) by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, and now, with Norweigian cartoonist Jason’s graphic novel Good Night, Hem (2021).
Unlike a documentary or a biography, Good Night, Hem offers audiences a completely different and unexpected Hemingway, in the form of a dog-like creature. The graphic novel contains three individual, though interconnecting stories. The first is set in Paris in 1925 when Hemingway along with a familiar cohort decide to travel to Pamplona, Spain, for the annual Running of the Bulls. The second story takes place in Paris as well, but nearly two decades later, when Hemingway is a war correspondent. Paris has just been liberated, and Hemingway, along with a group of like-minded individuals, travels to Germany to help end the war altogether. The final story (and by far the shortest of the three) takes us to Cuba in 1959, where Hemingway passes the time in reflection while writing his memoirs.
First, let me say that this is not a book for someone with only a passing knowledge of Hemingway’s life and his social circles. Good Night, Hem depends heavily upon the reader to be familiar with individuals and places that Hemingway would have come into contact with during his life. While the stories are readable, the continual name drops and changes in setting require a prior familiarity to be enjoyable. As an English professor who is very familiar with Hemingway and the Lost Generation writers, I found myself smiling and nodding as someone “in the know”–like the superfan who is able to detect all of the Easter eggs. And, to be honest, that is mainly what I enjoyed about this book: seeing people and places I know re-imagined in an unusual form. Unfortunately, the dialogue moves along stiffly, and it’s often difficult to determine which character is which due to the similar designs. And, while the choice to use an animal form helped soften some of the darker parts of Hemingway, I almost wish it hadn’t.
Ultimately, Good Night, Hem comes across like a personal project for Jason, and it will feel personal to readers like myself who have their own special connection to this era of literature. So, if you are looking for an interesting gift for your 20th-century American literature professor, then Good Night, Hem is a sure bet. For anyone outside of this very narrow audience, skip it.