Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504
"A Pursuit Race" was first published in 1927 in Men Without Women, Ernest Hemingway's second collection of short stories. This is one of the stories in the collection that appeared in Susan F. Beegel's Hemingway's Neglected Short Fiction: New Perspectives (1989). Hemingway, perhaps foreseeing that the story was not as striking as others in the collection, or knowing that it would be overlooked, did not attempt to sell it to a journal and just slated it for the book itself.
The two main characters are William Campbell, an advance man for a burlesque show, and Mr. Turner, the show's manager. The opening paragraph discusses a bicycle pursuit race that serves as a metaphor for Campbell's job as advance man, and also for life in general. In a pursuit race, riders start at equal distances from each other. The goal is to overtake the rider in front of you and not be overtaken by any riders behind you. The narrator mentions that in a two-person race, a rider is usually caught within six miles. To perform as "advance man," Campbell must stay ahead of the burlesque show (other riders), in order to advertise the show before they get to the next city. Beginning in Pittsburgh, en route to the Pacific coast, the show catches up to William Campbell in Kansas City.
Mr. Turner finds him drunk and/or high and in bed when he arrives in Kansas City. Mr. Turner implores Campbell to "take a cure," which likely meant to go to a sanitarium (rehab). Campbell responds drunkenly that he likes talking through a sheet; and he continues with other seemingly absurd responses to Mr. Turner's more direct questions, while affectionately kissing and licking the sheet. Turner tells Campbell he is drunk, but Campbell rolls up his sleeve to reveal punctures in his forearm presumably from heroin use. Campbell then tells Turner that he "got his wolf back." Some critics have said that the wolf represents his homosexual lover, being driven out of his (Campbell's) life by his drinking. This is a possible interpretation, but it seems more likely that the wolf represents his drug use, which is driven out by alcohol. The wolf (drugs) and alcohol are like the sheet that Campbell hides under and is so affectionate with. Campbell calls Turner "Sliding Billy," because he can "slide," or get by in that business, or that particular lifestyle. Campbell cannot slide, has coped by using drugs, and has finally thrown in the towel, or "gotten off his bicycle." Turner comes back to find Campbell sleeping, and in empathy, lets him sleep: a healthier solace than inebriation. Here, readers get the intimation that Turner knows what Campbell is going through, and they are therefore more similar than they are opposites.
This story could be interpreted as existential, absurdist, or even nihilistic. By the end, the reader is left wondering how long Campbell will wait/hide under the sheet, and can only guess what he might be waiting for: the next fix, the next race, death, a cure?
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