Short Stories: “A Pursuit Race” by Ernest Hemingway

Vintage-Bicycle-Image-GraphicsFairyOne 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
stuff, Billy.’

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.

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8 thoughts on “Short Stories: “A Pursuit Race” by Ernest Hemingway

      • Yeah, I was looking for it last night but it was late, I was tired, and I couldn’t find it. But will give it a harvard try today because I really want to read it. Afterwards, I’ll come back and read your review a bit more closely. I didn’t read it all yet because I didn’t want any spoilers, so to speak. Thanks for the heads up.

  1. Well, after reading the story the first time it made me feel very sad. Not because it is a sad story — which it is, but I love sad stories — but because I didn’t like it. And as someone who always likes Hemingway, even the cliche schtick of him in Midnight In Paris, I just couldn’t get my head around the fact that the story didn’t click with me.

    Then I figured that maybe I needed to treat it like a new song — I rarely like a song the first time I hear it. So I waited a day and then went back to read the story again.

    Still no joy.

    Then I went and surfed the web to see what was being said about story. Not much, and what little there is is not too complimentary to the it.

    But then I read it again today and I began to feel it a bit.

    Initially, Mr Turner was a big reason the story didn’t work for me. Since it’s such a short story, it is critical that every element work quick and true, and Mr Turner did not feel true.

    The story was too tragic: having to be a pursuit racer for living seems tragic; burlesque shows have an underlying vibe of tragedy to them; riding all the way from Pittsburg to KC on a bike is tragic; all that while being addicted to heroin is especially tragic. But then along comes Mr Turner, and even as busy as he is, even living a life amongst all that tragedy, he is still a beautiful, kindhearted soul.

    And it wasn’t working for me. A true Mr Turner would be a callous asshole who wouldn’t think twice about beating the crap out of Campbell before firing him.

    But when I read it again today it dawned on me: what is most tragic about that story is the fact that Mr Turner is so kindhearted. How hard it must be for him to live like that? We can tell, especially by the last line of the story, that Campbell wasn’t the first junkie poor Mr Turner had to deal with and lose to the drug.

    Poor, poor Mr Turner.

    And when I came to that realization that made me so incredibly sad.

    Which, of course, made me happy.

    Because it was a sad brought on by that good stuff that only Hemingway can bring about.

    Thank you, irenemcgarrity.

    • Hi Kurt, Yes, I think Hemingway valued morality, which is what Turner represents for me. He’s empathetic and cares about Campbell despite the fact that Campbell has been stealing from him for so long. In my reading, this is simply because he is another human being and to some extent Turner feels that it’s his moral duty to look after the guy. Perhaps he’s even had experience with heroin addiction himself. This makes me thinking about “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” where the waiter empathized with the old man who wanted to sit in the cafe at night because he also experienced that level of loneliness, that void. “A Pursuit Race” is definitely not popular and not for everyone; I appreciate that you took some time with it! One thing to understand about the story is that they are not actually riding bicycles–the “pursuit race” is a metaphor for what Campbell is doing. He’s traveling from town to town, slightly ahead of the burlesque show, collecting the advance money and then leaving. The “pursuit race” is really just to put an image in the reader’s mind of what is happening (minus the bicycles.)

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