The Peripatetic Reviewer

by Edward Weeks
by Henri Charriere
Morrow, $8.95
Captivity has a most powerful effect upon the memory. Prisoners who have been sentenced to solitary confinement depend on their memory to keep them sane, and memory often rewards them by storing away every last detail of what they have endured. In 1931 Henri Charriere, a safecracker, was condemned to life imprisonment in the penal colony of French Guiana; he could probably have been had up on a number of charges, but the Paris police framed him for the murder of a pimp. He was so outraged at the verdict that he lived with one thought, escape, and before he was deported, he had already secured a secret weapon, a plan, a thin tube of metal, inserted in his anus, containing the thousand-franc notes which would help to spring him.
He was twenty-five, and the reputation he had acquired in the underworld had preceded him in the prisons he was to inhabit; so too his nickname, “Papillon,” from the butterfly broadly tattooed on his breast. From 1931 to 1945, when at last he found sanctuary in Venezuela, he made ingenious and repeated attempts to break out, and according to his publishers he is the only man to have escaped from Devil’s Island. After his year of probation in Venezuela, it occurred to him to write the story of his incarceration; his memory was ready and waiting, he finished the book longhand in three months, and what came out was the hot lava of hellish experience.
Papillon himself is good-looking, a strong man with prodigious endurance, a born leader who respected the code of honor in the various “hotels” he visited and was never in danger of assassination, though he was known to have money. His capacity for invention seems inexhaustible, and among his assets were the tattoos which decorated not only his chest but other parts of his anatomy and which he could copy for others if it was to his advantage to do so. Papillon the book moves with the breathless speed with which it was written; it has time for only the barest of characterizations of those who aided or tormented him; of his youth it tells us only that he had acquired a competence with boats and a knowledge of the sea. The entire focus is on the narrator’s imperative to be free, and the rare physical pleasures he enjoyed in his battle against the brutal, implacable penal system. The French love the Grand Guignol and practice it on each other; and there is enough sadism here, pressed down and running over, to explain why a million copies of this book have been sold on the Continent. It amuses me that shortly after publication, Papillon himself, now a citizen of Venezuela, was in Paris being interviewed about the veracity of what he had written.
One cannot help being fascinated by the honor among thieves and the audacity with which plans, weapons, cigarettes, and cash are transmitted from the outside to those who are planning a cavale. Papillon broke out again and again, braving the sea, the sharks, the quicksand, which he traversed led by a pig, and the ferocity of the native Indians. For a few months, but long enough to impregnate two comely sisters, he lived as the adopted son of the Guajira, a tribe renowned for its fierceness, and he could have basked forever in that idyll were it not for his urge to prove himself again in civilization. When he is betrayed to the Colombian police by the Mother Superior of a convent, back he goes again for two years in solitary confinement, pacing his cell as he estimates that he has 17,520 hours to kill. No doubt he embellishes, but the wonder is that having been buried alive for so long, he could write with such juice and excitement at sixty. The translation is just as colloquial as it ought to be.
by Paul Horgan
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $6.95
Whitewater by Paul Horgan is the idyllic story of a small Texas town with the flossy name of Belvedere, the ends of whose streets wander off into the prairie. It is a novel which deals compassionately with the older generation and not quite convincingly with the younger; and although there is the intimation that the story takes place in the late 1940s, it could as easily have occurred in 1910, for none of the characters seem to have been touched by war.
The youth in the foreground are a trio; Phillipson Durham, the only son of impecunious and ailing parents, a thoughtful, book-hungry boy who was saved from strangulation in Belvedere by the gift of a timely admirer; Marilee Underwood, the pretty ingenue, who was destined for the Church until diverted; and Billy Breedlove, an all-American boy whose brimming confidence charms everyone, including Marilee. The novel catches these three at a time of innocence before their graduation, and each reader must decide for himself whether the tragedy in which they are involved is plausible or contrived. For myself I cannot believe that the inspired captain of a track team, who is entered in four events, would spend the night before the big meet painting a water tower.
Mr. Morgan’s prose often has the thrust of poetic imagery, and there is a pathos in some of the elders in Belvedere who in the past were residents of Whitewater, a village which was submerged by an artificial lake. They have lost their gumption in being transplanted, and their remembrance of the drowned town haunts the imagination of Phil and Billy. Mr. Horgan is skillful in his description of the lake by night, of the plains in spring when the lilacs are in bloom, and of the climb up the face of the ninety-foot water tower. More vital than the kids is the love affair involving the bourbon-drinking banker, Tom Bob Gately, his carping wife, Leora, and his perfumed mistress, Thyra Doolittle.
In its curiously detached way this story will bring relief to those who regard with dismay or disgust the iroidhed youngsters in our midst.
by Jim Bouton
World, $6.95
Ball Four by Jim Bouton is a timely book and, to anyone interested in professional baseball, an amusing one. Jim Bouton is a righthanded pitcher whose overhand delivery constantly knocked his hat off —thirty-seven times in one nineinning game. He was signed on by the Yankees for a small bonus, rose rapidly in the organization, was a twenty-game winner for two years, pitched in two World Series, and then, as he lost his speed, he went to soft stuff and the knuckleball, dropping back into the minors and eventually retiring in August of this year. His book was written in the fall of 1968 when he was thirty and hanging on precariously as a relief pitcher for the Seattle Pilots. He knew that his time was about up and felt free to speak his mind openly about both the player’s relations with management, a subject which management does not like to see in print, and the player’s relations with his own team, a subject which most major leaguers find touchy. Though certain managers, notably Ralph Houk of the Yankees, have rubbed him the wrong way, Jim Bouton is not vindictive, and it is his love for the game, his uninhibited candor, and his irrepressible sense of humor that make Ball Four the entertaining book that it is.
He has a flair for the terse, lively phrase: “You’re much better off in athletics if you do things instinctively. . . . Baseball isn’t a thinking man’s game. . . . Ballplayers often say, ‘Quit thinking, you’re hurting the club.’" He remembers Doubleday’s First Law: if you throw a fast ball with insufficient speed, someone will smack it out of the park with a stick. He speaks of the beanball, which players call “chin music”; he writes on March 21 that “Death came calling today,” meaning that friends of his had been cut and were being sent down to the minors; he quotes the scornful exchanges between batter and pitcher which those in the ball park never hear; and his account of what a ball club does after the game when they are on the road is juvenile absurdity. “Beaver shooting,” especially in Washington, D.C., is one of their pastimes—but I must let him tell it.
Under the dateline of June 30 he gives us a sidelight on his method: “I usually keep my notepaper in the back pocket of my uniform trousers and my pen in my jacket pocket. The reason is that I don’t want to be separated from my notes and the jacket is often left on the bench. On the other hand, I don’t want my pen with me when I’m pitching because I wouldn’t want to fall on it. So today when 1 went out to the mound I discovered I had my pen in my pocket. I took it out and tossed it behind me on the mound. When the inning was over I went to sit on the bench and Ron Plaza, who coaches at third, handed me the pen. Without comment.”
During his days in the bullpen he began to reminisce about the Yankees, about his friendship with his roommates, Phil Linz and Fritz Peterson, and his somewhat skeptical esteem for Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. His thumbnail sketches of Johnny Sain, “the greatest pitching coach that ever lived,” and of Crosetti, who does not come in for superlatives, are memorable, and through it all runs the inference that the pressure of ownership, which management has enforced for decades on the field and particularly when new contracts are to be signed, will have to be moderated now that the talent is spread so thin and the players have found their voice.
by Edwin Way Teale
Dodd, Mead, $7.50
Edwin Way Teale and his wife, Nellie, are the most knowledgeable, far-traveled team of American naturalists now in their prime. The four books, beginning with North With the Spring, in which they followed the four seasons up and across our country, form a magnificent quartet, and it was a good stroke of literary diplomacy which sent them to England to record their impressions of that ancient and diverse island. They are the first Americans to chart the English countryside since John Burroughs did it eighty-five years ago, and their travels took them 11,000 miles through rural England, “through a world of country lanes and gentle streams and small villages, through what-for the naturalist at least—must always be the best of Britain.”
In Springtime in Britain they begin at Land’s End, and their excursions were planned to bring them to those very spots which novelists like Thomas Hardy had immortalized in Dorset, or which W. IT Hudson had written about in The Land’sEnd. Near the little village of Zennor they found Maurice Griggs, a farmer who as a boy of nine had guided Hudson, and Griggs led them to the summit of a rocky tor where Hudson loved to sit as the sun set over the water. They sought out the Vale of Berkeley and the stone cottage in which Dr. Edward fenner, the discoverer of vaccination, had arranged the specimens brought back from Captain Cook’s first voyage; they saw Dartmoor and the New Forest through a veil of rain, and on the road from Bristol to Bath, though it was mid-April, they drove through a blizzard to reach the historic Grosvenor Inn in ShaftesIbury.
Their links with Gilbert White of Selborne, John Evelyn, and Charles Darwin add a historical flavor to the text, but I must say one misses the revealing give-and-take of the encounters with their American contemporaries.
Birds are in and out of the Tealcs’ thoughts, and their insight about them, the result of years of reading and observation, is delightful: the skylarks singing and hovering above the White Cliffs or Stonehenge: the jackdaws lining their nests with loose hair from the backs of shedding sheep: the wrens, American immigrants, which reached Britain by way of Siberia; the cuckoos which were calling as they footed through the Hardy country; the nightingales which they caught up with in the woods north of Elveden.
Of all of England’s beauty my heart goes first to the trees, and as I hear the Tcalcs marvel at the great beech trees in the New Forest or tell of their visit to the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest of Robin Hood, a tree with a circumference of more than thirty feet, and an age of more than a thousand years, I long to go. And when they get to the Lake Country and come to Derwentwater, from which Samuel Taylor Coleridge derived the name Derwent for one of his children, and then to the village of Rydal Mount, where Wordsworth spent his later years, I am back there, a graduate student on a “push bike,”as the English call it, living above a bakery on 5 shillings a day, and climbing every one of the great heights with a bar of chocolate for my lunch for the glory of seeing the mountain tarns and the valleys spread out below.