Hemingway spends a lot of time in cafés with Bumby while he works. Bumby comes to Austria, but when Hemingway and Hadley go to Spain in the summers Bumby stays with a maid and her husband, Touton. At the cafés, Bumby watches people go by while Hemingway works. As he gets bigger, he learns to speak “excellent French.” He knows to be quiet when Hemingway is working, but when Hemingway is finished they have conversations. Bumby asks Hemingway, in French, if he knows that “women cry like infants piss.” He repeats this and other phrases taught to him by Touton. Bumby notes that Touton says writing is “very difficult” and that Bumby “must always respect it.” Bumby asks if they can go to Sylvia Beach’s bookstore, and observes that she has a lovely name, “Silver Beach.”
Unlike Scott and the young man who harass Hemingway at the cafés and distract him from his work, Bumby is the perfect companion. He is absolutely silent when Hemingway needs silence, and provides welcome conversation when Hemingway is not working. Bumby is an amusing character, comically articulate and mature for his age. His seriousness and maturity contrasts with the behavior of many adults in the novel, who embrace a form of childlike foolishness and often behave in a self-destructive and ill-advised way.
After Bumby sees Scott drunk at the Place St.-Michel café, he asks Hemingway: “Monsieur Fitzgerald is sick Papa?” Hemingway explains that Scott drinks too much, and Bumby decides to “set an example” to help Scott drink less. When Scott arrives, Bumby orders a demi-blonde beer, but only a ballon (half-glass). Bumby explains that Touton says “a little beer does no harm to a boy my age,” and Hemingway explains to Scott who Touton is. After Scott leaves, Hemingway tells Bumby that it is “not so simple” to “set an example” for someone like Scott. Bumby asks if Scott was traumatized during the war, and Hemingway replies that Scott wasn’t but that many of his friends were. Bumby reflects that it’s nice not to have serious problems; he asks Hemingway if his work went well and offers to help. He adds that it was good that Scott was sober and didn’t annoy Hemingway. Hemingway responds that Scott has “almost insurmountable problems,” but Bumby says he believes Scott will “surmount” them.
Bumby’s innocent belief that he can fix Scott’s problems is both funny and endearing while also being rather tragic. Bumby’s positivity comes not only from youthful naïveté, but also his Frenchness, a quality that sets him apart from both Scott and his own father. Bumby has absorbed the advice given to him by Touton, such that he has a different attitude about topics like alcohol and marriage than Scott and Hemingway. Bumby’s comment that it is nice not to have any “serious problems” has multiple meanings. On one level, Bumby has no problems because he is a child. Yet his comment also refers to the fact that the 1920s were a time of peace after war. The tragic reality is that both these states of being—childhood and peace—are doomed to end.