Michael Palin has found success in many places: He made his name almost three decades ago as a founding member of the Monty Python comedy troupe, and he arguably has gone farther in the aftermath than any of his mates.
This is the literal truth, considering his public-TV travelogues that have taken him "From Pole to Pole" and "Around the World in Eighty Days." But he was terribly amusing also as the stuttering fool in "A Fish Called Wanda."
And now for something completely different: Palin has penned "Hemingway's Chair," his first novel. The furniture of the title is a fishing aid: pedestal base, pole holders, leather restraints. Old and ordinary, except that it is said to have buttressed Hemingway for two months off Peru in 1956, during shooting for the movie version of "The Old Man and the Sea." That makes it invaluable to Martin Sproale, an efficient, strait-laced postal clerk in his hometown of Theston, England, a small seaside village of little import.
Martin lives with his mother and maintains a tepid romance with the plain Elaine Rudge, who works alongside him. He cycles wherever he goes, and five days a week, 48 weeks a year, where he goes is the post office, round two sides of North Square, coasting to a stop at the same spot, day after day.
It's a life Martin might well have found unbearable if not for his "Papa." No, not his father, who died when Martin was 17 (by a circumstance not spoken), but Papa Hemingway, who's been Martin's hero since the time of Dad's passing. Martin's room at home is a shrine to the writer. Photographs of him are everywhere, none more dramatic than the unposed, wall-size black-and-white of the master in the act of writing. Hemingway-style hats, a Hemingway-esque typewriter, Hemingway's favorite spirits. But nothing Hemingway had, or held.
Then comes news of the chair, by way of Ruth Kohler, a New Jersey intellectual who's come to England on sabbatical to write her thesis on the women in Hemingway's life. Ruth and Martin have only just established their mutual interest when she learns that a shop in London is offering the chair for the staggering sum of 750 pounds.
To Martin, it's the chance of a lifetime, but it comes on the heels of the disappointment of a lifetime. As assistant manager of the Theston post office, Martin had practically been running the place for doddering old Padge, but now that Padge has finally retired, distant bureaucrats have chosen a younger man, even though Martin is only 36. Among many things, this means Martin won't be getting the raise that would have allowed him to buy things like the chair.
And that's only one reason Martin feels antipathy toward the new man, Nick Marshall. He doesn't trust Marshall to carry on the traditions that have made the post office a center of the community. His suspicion is borne out one night at dinner when Marshallacknowledges that he's in league with the bureaucrats, and that they're selling out the post office to make a killing as part of a new information-technology concern on the continent.
Just when Martin thinks it can get no worse, it does: Marshall offers Martin a retainer from the company, a cool 1,000 pounds, to be its inside man in Theston. Sure, it's blood money, but it'll pay for the chair, so Martin takes it. When Marshall takes the next sleazy, secret step toward the post office's ruination, though, Martin reverses and they are put on a collision course.
For a first novel -- albeit from a writer who has proven his ability in the brilliant skits of the Pythons -- "Hemingway's Chair" has many pleasant ingredients. The prose, though hardly breathtaking, sails along without a whiff of tedium and is often clever; the story is studded with quirky bit players. There is, for example, Lord Muncaster, who at Padge's farewell "gazed out over the throng, his warm and generous eyes watering with the kind of hazy sentimentality that affects only the truly out of touch."
Palin's description of Martin's state amid the widespread commiseration immediately after he is passed over -- "It was like winning the pools on the day of your execution" -- is not only clever but also an example of the story's robust sense of place (although the many references to family allowances, pension cards, and other puzzling functions of the British postal service are a bit off- putting).
It's easy to take to Martin himself, too; he is not unlike Palin's stutterer from "Wanda," though without the stutter -- a quiet, somewhat fearful fellow who turns out to have a fire inside. In fact, it was Palin's visage that immediately and continually came to mind throughout the story. Given Palin's long record on all sides of the creative process, there's no reason he couldn't play the lead if his story makes it to the movies.