One of my all-time favorite Hemingway short stories is one most people haven’t heard of. In “A Pursuit Race”* William Campbell is in a pursuit race with a burlesque show. This means he’s trying to stay slightly ahead of them as they travel from town to town. He’s the advance man, and as long as he’s slightly ahead of them, he gets paid and doesn’t have to actually do any work. He uses the money for drugs and booze. This story was probably my first introduction to tragic satire, which over time has become my main squeeze–both in terms of what I like to read and what I like to write. William Campbell is a tragic, loser-ish type of guy. He gets caught in a cheap motel room by the manager of the burlesque show, Mr. Turner, “a middle-aged man with a large stomach and a bald head” who has many things to do. Campbell and Turner proceed to have a very funny, very sad dialog. Campbell remains in bed, hiding under a sheet, as he speaks to Mr. Turner. Hemingway uses the sheet as a comic prop: Here’s an example:
‘I got into this town last night,’ William Campbell said,
speaking against the sheet. He found he liked to talk through
a sheet. ‘Did you ever talk through a sheet?’
‘Don’t try to be funny. You aren’t funny.’
I’m not being funny. I’m just talking through a sheet.’
‘You’re talking through a sheet all right.’
Turner thinks that Campbell is a drunk, but he’s actually a heroin addict. This is revealed gradually through the dialog. It’s what makes the story sad. But even as things turn more serious and Turner tells Campbell to “take a cure,” William Campbell’s love affair with the sheet remains a central part of the dialog. When Turner sits down on Campbell’s bed, Campbell tells him “Be careful of my sheet.”
‘You can’t just quit at your age and take to pumping your-
self full of that stuff just because you got in a jam.
‘There’s a law against it. If that’s what you mean.’
‘No, I mean you got to fight it out.’
Billy Campbell caressed the sheet with his lips and his
tongue. ‘Dear sheet,’ he said. ‘I can kiss this sheet and see
right through it at the same time.
‘Cut it out about the sheet. You can’t just take to that
The story made such an impression on me that it found it’s way into my own writing pretty directly. In my short story “In a World Full of Crazy Talk” Bill comforts himself with a pillow after having an awkward one-night stand with Laura.
They were both quiet. He was resting his head on her shoulder and she was running her hand up and down his back.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know what it is. I don’t know anything.”
“It’s okay. You don’t have to know anything right now.” Laura wanted to give him some of her thoughts to make him feel better, but she knew it wouldn’t work.
He sighed, and she saw that he was still feeling bad.
He rolled over and buried his face in the pillow. “This is the best pillow,” he said. “This is the best pillow in the world.”
Laura smiled and kept her hand on his back. She was adding things to her list.
Bill said, “In a world full of crazy talk, there is sanity in this pillow.” His voice was muffled in the pillow and his hair was sticking up in the back. She smiled and kept adding things.
He said, “This pillow. This pillow.”
There’s just something about tragedy and bedding that really, really go together. Sad
absurdity, sheets, and pillows. It resonates. I love Hemingway’s “A Pursuit Race.” If you haven’t read it and you’re in the mood for something a little sad and funny (and a sheet) check it out!
*This links to Hemingway’s The First Forty Nine Stories in its entirety, so you have to do a control or command “f” and “a pursuit race” to get to the actual story.