It was dusk at Harry's. The six men standing near the long dark bar drank fast and hard, as they thought of the Challenge. The waiters moved silently through the crowd. The women sitting in the shadows watched the six -- watched them for any sign of weakness. They knew that the task was hard, and that tall wine glasses on clean wood tables could not help a man if he did not have the will to make the decision, and make it true.
And then they heard the man ask the question. It was a simple question. The six knew that they could not answer the question. They also knew the question was their answer. Now their challenge could be met.
"Why can't a woman be more like a bull?"
Harry DePuy says he's been trying to use that question for years. The 58-year-old writing instructor from Henrietta, N.Y., finally succeeded on Monday night, winning a trip to Florence, Italy, and a dinner at Harry's Bar in the process. The question -- and DePuy's page-long parody of Ernest Hemingway's distinctive prose style -- captured the Fourth Annual Imitation Hemingway Competition, a.k.a. the Bad Hemingway Contest, a yearly quest to uncover the best page of really bad imitation Hemingway.
The contest is sponsored by Harry's Bar and American Grill in Los Angeles, an institution mindful of its place as a replica of the Harry's Bar in Venice -- where, as the real Hemingway assured us on page 68 of "Across the River and Into the Trees," "You can find everything on earth . . . except, possibly, happiness."
So, once a year, Harry's assembles a cast of Hemingway experts, relatives and pretenders. This year's judges were Papa's son, Jack Hemingway, novelists Ray Bradbury and Barnaby Conrad, syndicated Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Smith, Los Angeles Herald Examiner books editor Digby Diehl, and local advertising executive Paul Keye. Before they convened, Harry's made some low-key noise; it placed a stack of entry forms by the maitre d's station, took out a single ad in the New Yorker, and attracted scattered national coverage.
But ever since "Come here, my little gerbil," captured the prize in the first competition, in 1978, word has spread; this year's contest drew entrants from all 50 states, as well as foreign contries that included Chile, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Australia and, naturally, Italy.(A European winner would receive a trip to the Harry's in Los Angeles.)
"What we're looking for is really very simple," says Paul Keye. "We're after reverent ridicule, and that's what always wins."
The bar issued a challenge: Write a page of bad Hemingway, and make sure you mention Harry's.
"Now you must step into the Big Ring alone," read the entry form. "The White Bull That Is Paper With No Words On It is waiting."
This year, 2,300 entries came back ("I'm sorry if it's not what you were looking for but I never read anything Hemingway wrote," said the cover letter accompanying one losing entry). After being screened by Southern California college instructors, the entries were pared down to 22 pages -- all peopled by bullfighters, hard drinkers and doe-eyed senoritas.
Twenty-two pages of opening lines like these: "'I'm drunk,' Nick said to the French General."
Or: "The rain was cold and wet and came in drops on the pavement below. The rain always came in drops."
Or: "Through the glasses he could see the neo-fascist tanks crossing the piazza, and he knew there was little time now, very little time to place the explosives and blow up the bridge, blow it sharp and clean like a surgeon, blow it in one cracking blow before the tanks reached the river and pushed across to Harry's."
Or: "He sat down to write the winning entry in the Harry's Bar Hemingway competition. He wondered if he was any good any more. The women sneered at him and said he probably would not be able to do it. When he thought of her in automatically thought of Joan Bennett."
Jack Smith, for one, was worried about sorting through it all. Hemingway was his own worst parodist," he laughed. "It's not easy to write like him without really overdoing it. I've brooded for a year about whether I did the right thing last year."
But Barnaby Conrad, author of "Matador," was more sanguine. "Last year was a real donnybrook," he said. "The novelists among us all wanted the same piece, but Digby and the others disagreed. Of course, the other bastards didn't know what they were doing, so we won out, by which time everyone was sloshed on wine. That's probably what will happen this year, too."
At 5:15 the judges sat down at a long, pink-draped table, and picked up the stack of semifinalists. Complaints began immediately. "Don't the pre-screeners understand that we want the funny stuff?" Diehl said. The "turkeys" were quickly eliminated, the ones that dealt with what Paul Keye called "that age-denial thing" and the one that misspelled amaretto.
In less than an hour Diehl had made up his mind; he adjourned to the bar and ordered an $18 bottle of Acacia Chardonnay. "It shouldn't take a grown man more than five minutes to read 22 pages," he said. "The problem here is that most of my fellow judges are remedial reading students.
"It's an easy decision -- there were only four entries with any sense of humor at all. That's understandable, given the state of the world, but this is a funny contest, and I don't care about terrific academic parodies. We oughta have funny entries.
"Actually," he confided, "the real trick involves bribing the others with the right wine. I've already picked the winning entry. "Now I've got to pick the winning Chardonnay."
By 6:30 the panel had toasted a truely gruesome paint-by-numbers portrait of Hemingway, and narrowed the discussion to two entries: DePuy's, and one about a matador who "hungered for the feeling he had once had that had been like hunger, when life had seemed simple, even during a false rain in an old city, before a part of you died." Diehl and Bradbury each read his favorite out loud.
And after some halfhearted politicking, the decision went to Diehl's choice: DuPuy, a writing instructor for the Rochester Institute of Technology, and a nonpartisan politician who runs for public office every two years -- and loses. His entry was titled "Bull in the Night":
"Outside in the snow they lay together in the sleeping bag. He kissed her. What the hell, he thought. His tongue darted into her left nostril and right ear. Simultaneously.
"He was proud of this skill he had sharpended with the bulls. He liked her, though she was not a bull. She reminded him of the free lunch at Harry's Bar."
"I was certain I was going to win all along," said DuPuy matter-of-factly. "My local paper had their own contest, with all the entries from this area, and I didn't even make the top three."
Hemingway is no particular favorite of DuPuy, who says he wrote the winning entry in less than an hour. It's just that he's a self-described "formidable literary scholar."
"I've gotta admit it," he said, "I'm good. I don't take vacations, I don't play golf. I just read dull books and analyze them. I've got a standing $2,000 challenge to anyone in this area who thinks they can out-teach and out-scholar me -- it doesn't cost them a cent, but so far, nobody's taken me up on it."
Back at Harry's, Ray Bradbury shrugged off his defeat. "When Digby read his piece so well and I flubbed mine, it was all over. But I can live with this. Every year, we get three or four really excellent entries, while the rest just lie there."
Paul Keye was less generous, "Digby really needs help," he said. "He's been brooding about last year's defeat all year long, getting madder and madder, and now he's gloating. I think it's time to blacklist him. Anyway, I thought his winner was pure Norman Mailer."