Print the Legend is an absolutely fascinating novel of writers, espionage, and the troubled life of literary giant Ernest Hemingway. Layer by layer, the author builds a scenario based on the suicide of the iconic writer on July 2, 1961, a hard-drinking, hard-living man with four wives and a body of work that has spawned a cottage industry of scholars, critics and acolytes.
Hemingway’s life defined by his suicide, “the shot heard ‘round the world,” McDonald posits the unthinkable, a death due to other, more malevolent forces. The ribald cast of characters is a veritable rogue’s gallery that feeds the case for a questionable death: Hemingway scholar Richard Paulson, desperate to prove his theory of murder, his only claim to fame a recounting of Hemingway’s Paris days in the
'20s; Paulson’s pregnant wife, Hannah, a writer of fiction of some merit, manipulated by her alcoholic, obsessed husband;
and Mary, Papa Hemingway’s fourth wife, with designs on the final works and legend that may propel her to long-delayed fame.
Then there is Hemingway’s contemporary, Hector Lassiter, one of the last of the Lost Generation and on the downside of his creative life. Lassiter is determined to protect his friend’s legacy and reputation, resisting a growing attraction to the very pregnant Hannah. Donovan Creedy is a double agent who toils for J. Edgar Hoover by day and pounds his own typewriter by night, a perverse and driven fanatic who shares Hoover’s twisted world view. The novel is further crowded by a bevy of scholars and critics who make their living from Papa’s reputation, squabbling over the spoils of his writing.
The author pays special attention to the political tenor of the Hemingway years, the days and nights in Paris, the flirtations and rebellions in Cuba, the rise of Communism and the enemies of left-leaning artists and writers considered a serious threat to democracy by a powerful Hoover and the FBI. Years after Hemingway’s death, the machinations continue - surveillance of great writers, the salting of suspicion, the behind-the-scenes interference of a government agency shaping public opinion and poisoning the well of creativity: “A writer who cannot write can no longer live.”
McDonald builds his thriller with intensity and precision, introducing concepts long-buried in the political past and the conflicts of assorted characters on a collision course with history. While Mary Hemingway drunkenly parlays her claim to Papa’s posthuma, Hannah is faced with the foolishness of her marriage to a venal man, Creedy lurking with ill intentions and a growing fanaticism, and Hector Lassiter trying to protect his friend’s reputation in the face of a concerted effort at exploitation.
The result is dynamic, a novel filled with shocks and revelations, the tragic arc of genius cannibalized by bottom-feeders and fear-mongers, a brilliant, riveting read where the truth is sometimes better left to the imagination: “When legend becomes fact, print the legend.”