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A Novelist Called Palin

By Gary Krist

Monday, June 22, 1998; Page C02


By Michael Palin

St. Martin's. 280 pp. $23.95

Is there anything that Michael Palin can't do? Best known as a founder of the British comedy team Monty Python's Flying Circus, he has since proven to be the group's most versatile alumnus. Not only has he gone on to act in non-Python movies like "A Fish Called Wanda" and "The Missionary," he's also written a play and several children's stories, collaborated on several travel books and hosted a series of television documentaries. Now, with "Hemingway's Chair," he's produced an engaging and accomplished first novel. It makes you wonder when we'll be hearing the premiere of Palin's First Symphony.

Those familiar with the demented brilliance of the Python series may be surprised at the understated tone of Palin's novel. While "Hemingway's Chair" does have moments of antic comedy, its brand of subtle, compassionate humor seems far more Trollopian than Pythonesque. In fact, the book's protagonist, Martin Sproale, could easily pass for a descendant of one of Trollope's Barchester provincials. A bland, unassuming type who lives with his mother, Martin bicycles every morning to his job at the post office of a negligible British town called Theston, where he carries on a tepid romance with one of his co-workers. Just about the only thing remarkable about the young man is his intense obsession with Ernest Hemingway. Having turned his bedroom into something of a Hemingway shrine, Martin spends most of his evenings there, tending his collections of Papa-related memorabilia and toasting a huge photograph of the Great Writer with snifters of high-proof grappa.

As you might expect, the former Python has a keen eye for this kind of eccentricity, but what impresses most about "Hemingway's Chair" is his firm command over the basic craft of novel-writing. For a neophyte, Palin is remarkably deft. His book is well paced, his prose carefully hewn, his characters fully developed and convincingly human. And his comic timing is impeccable. In a typical early episode, for instance, Martin is interrupted during one of his frequent communions with the spirit of his hairy-chested idol:

" 'I've made some tea. Do you want a cup?' It was his mother calling. Reminding him of the rituals of life outside. 'I've put it in the kitchen, Martin!'

"Martin shook his head sadly. Tea-drinkers, mothers, post office administrators, would-be fiancees. Little people with little minds. When would they realize that only through confrontation with danger could life be lived to the full? On the other hand he was thirsty after all that salt and vinegar.

"He finished the grappa, slammed down the glass, threw a punch at the light switch and went out.

" 'Coming,' he called."

Obviously, Martin fancies himself (at least in his heart) just the kind of virile he-man that Hemingway would admire. But in a town like Theston, the opportunities for machismo are dishearteningly few. Frustrated and dissatisfied, Martin despairs of ever finding his chance to "live life to the full" -- until a worthy enemy shows up in the form of one Nick Marshall. When the unscrupulous Marshall takes charge of the post office and begins taking draconian measures to (gasp!) modernize and privatize the quaint local institution, Martin discovers the cause he's been yearning for. Casting aside his meek persona, he declares war against the forces of corporate greed and resolves to fight for what he believes in (which, in this case, seems to be slow counter service and guaranteed employment for incompetent postal clerks).

It's at this point in the novel, however, that Palin begins to lose his sure footing. As Martin becomes ever more deeply consumed by his mission, he succumbs to a form of insanity that's just a little too cute to accept. He finds himself adopting personality traits of his imaginary mentor; at times, he even seems to be possessed by the spirit of the man himself. Depicting such a descent into lunacy is a notoriously difficult feat of novelistic legerdemain -- one that Palin doesn't quite pull off. And in a couple of late scenes, when Martin starts mistreating women and throwing drinks across the room (all in classic Hemingway style), the book begins to exude the first faint whiffs of amateurish excess.

But Palin ultimately manages to retain our sympathies, if not our unqualified belief. As he sends Martin racing toward his defining act of bravado -- a bit of industrial sabotage that involves Hemingway's old fishing chair -- he succeeds in underscoring the absurdity of Martin's quest while at the same time letting us share his moment of genuine triumph. Like one of Hemingway's embattled heroes, Martin fights the good fight, however futile the effort may be in the long run. You could even characterize Palin's novel as an existential fable of sorts, a latter-day version of Papa's own "Old Man and the Sea." Only funnier. A lot funnier.

By Gary Krist, author of two short-story collections and a novel, "Bad Chemistry."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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