Storytelling, the Pungo River, and the Search for Hemingway in North Carolina

1. Farmville

I drive slowly through Farmville, North Carolina, ignoring my GPS telling me to pull down a side street and locate the place where I am staying. I want to see the town first. I’m here to do some research for a fiction story I am writing. Not in Farmville, but in Belhaven, a forty-five-minute drive east of here. The place I’m staying in Farmville is an Airbnb, and much cheaper.

I park the car on Main Street. It’s a hot day, already mid-afternoon, and the sun overhead is unblocked by cloud cover. As I stroll along the sidewalk, I notice the absence of pedestrians. Most of the shops appear to be closed. Still others look to no longer be in operation with flyers and notices on windows dated some time ago.

After a few minutes I’m essentially to the end of the street. Here there is a shop with large posters on the windows mentioning Alice in Wonderland, including a quote from the Mad Hatter. I peer inside to get a better idea of what kind of place it is, but it’s too dark to really see inside. Is it some kind of fun house? A place where children gather to hear stories?

I head back to the car, but before I do, I saunter off down a side street, hoping to find something unusual, though I have no idea what it might be. But before I’m halfway I cross the street and head back to Main Street where I pass Mirabella’s, an Italian restaurant, and the Pour Haus, a gastropub, two possible eateries. Before I get to my car, I take a picture of the storefront of Dapper Dan’s Art & Antique Gallery. I send the photo to my daughter and wife. The movie Brother Where Art Thou, a favorite of ours, features George Clooney among a trio of escaped convicts. Clooney, the leader of the bunch, is fixated on his hair and will wear only Dapper Dan pomade.


The house I’m renting is a large, turn-of-the century home, only two blocks from Main Street. On the front porch I plant myself in a green rocking chair and open Hemingway’s novel A Garden of Eden. Published twenty-five years after Hemingway’s death, The Garden of Eden is unlike anything in the Hemingway canon. The novel has none of the usual subjects of war, hunting, fishing, or bullfighting. Instead, it concerns a young, recently married couple who are honeymooning in Mediterranean France. David Bourne, the protagonist, is a writer and an obvious fill-in for Hemingway himself, one that certainly surprised the reading public when it came out in 1986. Catherine Bourne, the wife, is the strongest female character Hemingway ever created. Early on she goes to a hairstylist and cuts her hair very short, and bleaches it white. She tells David, “That’s the surprise. I’m a girl. But now I’m a boy too and I can do anything and anything and anything.” What she mostly means by “anything” is primarily of a sexual nature, though what it turns out to be is hard to say, as in The Garden of Eden, like in all of Hemingway’s writings, he speaks elliptically. However, though Hemingway may not be specific, it is clear that the Bourne’s engage in some sort of transgender relationship.

As I continue reading, I muse in my mind the story I have come to research. As much as twenty years ago, my wife, daughter, and I spent several nights in a bed and breakfast inn in Belhaven, North Carolina. After that vacation, I started writing a story that I titled “Sailing,” which I never completed. A few weeks ago, I found the story while I was searching for something else in my study. The last few weeks I have worked on the story, fleshing out many parts, and changing the title to “A Kayaker’s Guide to the Pungo River.” But recently the narrative had come to a halt because I felt that the main character’s actions lacked verisimilitude. I needed to find, as Hemingway came to call it, a “true sentence.” The trip to Belhaven is about getting a feel for the landscape, to make sure the details that I have already written ring faithfully. Like Hemingway felt throughout his life, I felt the need to see water, specifically the Pungo River, and to get some more sensory details of the setting for my story.

One of the interesting aspects of Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden is the metafictional, that is the intersections where David Bourne is writing a fictionalized story of when he was young and hunting in Africa with his father. This story within the story whereby the fictional character David writing about a supposedly true event in his life as a boy, and the fictional character David writing the fictional story of his honeymoon with Catherine, the one the reader is in fact reading—all of this is confounded, of course, by my own return to a previously unpublished work of fiction and by a planned return to its setting to see for myself if it was real. The connection to all this that makes it self-referential is that my title character, Winsome Pinnock, a retired sixtyish man whose wife has recently died, is rereading all of Hemingway’s works, and reading for the first time The Garden of Eden.

2. The Kayaker’s Guide to the Pungo River

I pull into Belhaven on Pamlico Street, and park in front of The Tavern at Jack’s Neck, which I quickly jot down in the little notebook I’m carrying. I figure Winsome needs a watering hole. I like the bar’s name, and will keep it for my story. Interestingly, I later learn Jack’s Neck was the original town name for Belhaven.

It’s mid-morning, sunny. I gather my backpack, and head toward the water. I walk down Water Street. The river is on my right. Water Street is where I stayed with my family all those years ago now. The street doesn’t look like it has changed much. The houses are still attractive, older, two- or three-story houses, painted in beautiful colors. I spot the B&B we stayed in, no longer an establishment now, but it is still in fine shape. I see the porch swing I sat in, reading Mark Twain, watching the Hispanic ladies walk by in late afternoon from the crab processing factory, their smudged white boots scuffling along the sidewalk. I don’t see the factory any longer, but it is something I will keep in my story, as the Hispanic woman, Tia, whom Winsome first meets while she is walking to work one morning, is essential to the story. As I stroll slowly down the street, getting a feel for the place, taking in the smell of the river with its slight salty fragrance, the thing I mostly notice is the many For Sale signs dotting the landscape. It seems every other house has one in front. Belhaven has had many floods over the years, and though the inhabitants appear to recover, it looks like many of them are wanting out. It’s a buyers’ market here, but who’s buying?

My daughter went rollerblading down Water Street when we stayed here in the nineties. My wife followed her, running down the street, I think, or was she riding a rental bike? I can’t quite remember. It doesn’t really matter. The scene went into the “Sailing” story and almost undoubtedly will go into “The Kayaker’s Guide to the Pungo River.”

I feel the need to get out of the sun, so I head over to the marina, hoping to purchase a bottle of water. A guy comes out of the store. His name is Juan, and his Great Dane forces his way out the door. The dog is massive, and it bulldozes its way onto the deck in front of the store before Juan is able to force it back inside. I ask about water, and he opens the door, which of course causes the dog to try and come back out, and he grabs a bottle of water and hands it to me. Juan says the dog just showed up, and he needs to head home to see how it got out of the house.

“How much does it weigh?” I ask.

“One hundred fifty pounds,” he says.

I stroll down the deck to the end of the pier, sit down, and lean against one of the pillars. I sit here for about forty minutes, just taking in the river, the movement of the water, seagulls flying low, squawking, all the time smelling everything, including that “fishy” smell, and how the air feels fresher and cleaner. I don’t see any boats on the river, but there are several docked, including the Elizabeth. The river laps up against the Elizabeth, smacking against its side, causing the boat to bob up and down. Hemingway owned a fishing boat by the name of Pilar. When I look at the Pungo, and the town of Belhaven, I can see Hemingway here. I can picture him manning Pilar out to Pamlico Sound and from there to the Atlantic Ocean, where the big fish like Blue Marlin swam. I think he would have been at home here, though there is no history of Hemingway spending any time along the coast of North Carolina. It just looks like a place he would like, be at home at, though whether Hemingway was ever really at home anywhere is hard to say.

I went on like this for a while, just sitting there, not waiting for anything to happen, thinking, and dreaming. This thinking causes my imagination to be overwhelmed by inadequacy, by a painful certainty that I’ll never be able to write the story I want to write. My sensibility is a wind-whipped state of confusion, swirling with nostalgia, imagination, and a drowsy notion of what it means to create. As I look at the Pungo, I think about the Hemingway story “Big Two- Hearted River: Part I” and “Big Two-Hearted River: Part II.” I think about Nick, the main character in the story, the only character really, unless one thinks of the river as a character, and I suppose the river is a character. I gaze at the land on the other side of the Pungo with its marshy grasses, cattails, ferns, and other hydrophilic plants. I imagine, for a moment, what the river would have been like hundreds of years ago, before European settlements, when the Machapunga Indians lived here, fishing the shores, and paddling in their wooden crafts. Many of the Machapunga lived on the shores of Lake Mattamuskeet, a shallow inland lake not far from Belhaven that is a migratory stop for many birds. The Indians were now extinct, eliminated like most Indians through disease and war. To paddle the Pungo, smelling the river that was void of buildings and other manmade structures, I try to envision what that would have been like. There is still parts of the river that are unspoiled and I can imagine Hemingway as a boy paddling them, for it was the moments as a boy in upper Michigan, paddling his homemade boat on Walloon Lake, alone, where perhaps he felt most himself.

As I get up and walk down the pier and back to the hot car, I think about Nick again in “The Big Two-Hearted River” stories. The river described by Hemingway sounded free and wild. In my mind I can see the river, and I imagine it flowing flawlessly over rocks both big and small, and I can see Nick looking at the swamp next to the river and how he wanted to avoid the swamp though he knew he couldn’t avoid it forever.


by Robert Wallace


Robert Wallace.jpgRobert Wallace has published over fifty essays, many of them short personal essays in the Raleigh News & Observer. He is also the author of over 35 fiction stories in journals such as North Carolina Literary Review, Bryant Literary Review, The Long Story, International Journal of Comparative Literature and Translation Studies, and others. He is the author of the novel A Hold on Time. Wallace has received a Writer’s Fellowship from the NC Arts Council.


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