The story is told from the perspective of Jake Barnes, an expatriate journalist from Kansas City, who does news-grams from an American station in Paris. He most closely resembles Hemingway’s own voice insomuch that he likes booze, broads, fights, bulls, and all things macho. The book's first part is comprised of Jake’s observation of his circle of friends. Jake kind of likes Brett Ashley, the verbose, effervescent, sharp-tongued English “dame” whose rapport with Jake makes for some of the liveliest parts of the novel. Jake can’t stand Mike, Brett’s melodramatic boyfriend. He pretends to like Robert Cohn, a Jewish novelist, but actually despises him because of his heritage. Closing the circle is Jake's friend Bill, a more verbose, more genial, and at times more vulgar version of the narrator.
In addition there are other spicy character dynamics relected in the conflicts and interrelationships between secondary characters. And Jake observes it all, sometimes reacting, sometimes giving out advice, sometimes intervening into their lives and discussions, sometimes doing anything but.
And how well Hemingway writes in those observations! The Hemingway sentence, the particular cultural trademark that established him in the world’s consciousness for so long, is here and it is as advertised. The beauty of Hemingway’s sentences didn’t come in any biblical/Shakespearean prose rhythms (Faulkner) or obsession for perfect lyrical beauty( Fitzgerald, although Hemingway was just as obsessed about writing, maybe more so). No, the poetry in Hemingway’s prose lies in it’s succinctness, it’s clarity, it’s austerity, it’s lack of excess or pretense — and the way he could describe a character, a scene or a setting also contributes to his greatness.
Whether the scenes takes place in Paris cafés, or the beautiful landscapes of Spain, or the bullfight arena at the exact tension-filled moment where the matador and the bull begin combat, one marvels on how he can say so much in such a small space, and do it in such a unique and beautifully American manner. His language in itself makes him indispensable, and its beauty is in abundance here.
When one comes to the question of what that beautiful language is saying, however, tough questions must be asked and brutally honest assertions made. It needs to be said that Jake, and subsequently Hemingway’s vision of Cohn and Jews is utterly rancid. I am no fan of political correctness, but to overlook the slurs and outbursts is an even more insidious form of it. Granted, we're not talking about controversial poet Amiri Baraka here, as Barnes/Hemingway feigns some feeling from him. But comparing Hemingway’s anti-Semitism and Baraka’s is like comparing a toxic waste barrel to a toxic waste dump. Yes, the dump is obviously larger, but one can also do without the barrel.