The Peripatetic Reviewer

by Edward Weeks
BLUE MERIDIAN: THE SEARCH
FOR THE GREAT WHITE SHARK
by Peter Matthiessen
Random House, $8.95
Like many of our young independent novelists—I think of Hervey Allen planting his onion patch in Bermuda while working on Anthony Adverse—Peter Matthiessen has had to supplement the income from his fiction, and for some time he did this as a commercial fisherman and captain of a charter boat out of Montauk. When his reputation as a naturalist became better known, he was signed on as the writing member of expeditions to the Amazon, New Guinea, and Alaska, and in this capacity, in 1968, he joined the film team led by Peter Gimbel to find and photograph underwater the Great White Shark, the most dangerous creature in the sea, known as the “white death” in waters where it is usually to be found.
The Gimbel team would begin their search off the coast of South Africa, photographing from aluminum cages, 6 by 6 by 3.5 feet, with air tanks, steel fittings, 110 pounds of lead ballast, and a flotation chamber holding compressed air in the center of the roof so that the buoyancy of the cage could be adjusted to the desired level, or brought swiftly to the surface. Peter Gimbel had been diving for twenty years; it was he who took the first pictures of the Andrea Doria, 225 feet down in the dark currents off Nantucket; he has the coolness and caution of a professional, and is an admirable teacher. In the Bahamas, where he first rehearsed the equipment and crew, he gave Matthiessen his baptism in the cage: then together they explored the Blue Hole, leaving the cage to swim into a cave in its wall so narrow that the divers had to enter single file. Matthiessen’s weights were too light, and his scuba tank kept clanging on the cavern roof; Gimbel handled the beam, and both were shocked when it illuminated the caudal fin of a large shark which they had trapped by accident and which was circling to avoid them. They made it back to the cage, and with air almost gone, went up to the surface. “A nurse shark,” Gimbel told the men on deck. “Eleven or twelve feet—the biggest I’ve ever seen.” No harm done but a foretaste of what was to come.
This was the plan for South Africa: on a chartered whale-catcher, the Terrier VIII, the Gimbel team would follow the Norwegian-manned fleet in its hunt for the big sperm whales. With spotter planes and sonar, the whales would be tracked down and killed, and as the blood spread, the sharks, hopefully a Great White among them, would come in to ravage the carcass—and the cameras would begin. Underwater there were to be four performers, Gimbel and Stan Waterman, the producer and associate producer, who would double as divers and cameramen, and Ron and Valerie Taylor, the most skilled and intrepid husband-and-wife team in Southern waters. The Taylors would operate the cages, and Ron would be an alternate cameraman when needed. (A portable 35-mm. recorded the life aboard ship and the whaling operations, but Valerie’s diary of the sharks in action, of her fear and elation, provided the reality when Matthiessen was away.)
Matthiessen, in his strong graphic prose, tells the story, writing down his dislike of South Africa, of the callous competence with which the whales were blasted, and his anger at such unrestricted extermination. On deck he watched the business of the birds, the wandering albatross, the sooty shearwaters, and storm petrels, and when he is dubbed into one of the cages, he watches, with a trepidation the reader shares, as shark after shark attacks the dead whales. Whitetips, blues, duskies, and tiger sharks, they come and go. One ten-foot blue nosed so insistently at the cage that Peter kicked it in the side and it slid away. Gimbel remarks, “If you really hurt one, he’ll go find something easier to eat.” The contrast between the savagery of the sharks, “doomed to keep swimming, open-mouthed, from birth to death,” and the intimacy of the divers is striking.
Good film depended on water clarity, on wind, waves, sensitive equipment, and sensitive people, whose health and tempers were strained as the search led from Durban to the Indian Ocean and thence to Ceylon, with the main character, the Great White, never coming into focus. Gimbel had to fly home to plead for more capital, and when it was granted, they made their last cast off the coast of South Australia. There, chumming with large gobs of a dead horse, they brought the Great White up from the depths, and now it was the sharks who patrolled the men. They bit the skiff, bit the propeller, mouthed the metal cages with such violence that their teeth went spinning from their jaws. As Matthiessen wrote: “They do not attack boats; they attack anything.” The largest that could be measured with any accuracy was sixteen feet, and with a predator of that size, no diver was swimming in the clear, as they had been with the lesser breeds.
For its natural history, for its persistent courage, and for its terrifying portrait of White Death, this book, along with its dramatic illustrations, will live in the memory of all who read it.
THE MERRY MONTH OF MAY by James Jones Delacorte Press, $7.95
The Merry Month of May, a title used ironically, is a novel of dissolution, the dissolution of a family of American expatriates at the time, and partly because, of the student riots in Paris in the spring of 1968, which when the unions and the apache joined in brought all France to a standstill. The family troubles are in the foreground, the student rumblings offstage creating, in the long sustained tension of the national strike, a contagious, irresponsible excitement. What happens is told by Jack Hartley, a failed novelist and poet, who after his divorce has settled in bachelor quarters on the He St.-Louis to edit The Two Islands Review; in his worrying, foxy way he is the symbol of decency who tries to preserve order in the home of his friends, the Gallaghers.
Harry Gallagher was blacklisted in Hollywood because of his Communist sympathies at the time of the McCarthy scourge; he took refuge in Paris and redeemed his reputation with the scripts he wrote for the French and Italian directors, who paid him well. Now at forty-nine he is living in a Bohemian studio, “such a massive projection of Harry’s personality that it was almost a caricature.” Gallagher is one of the backers of Jack Hartley’s little magazine, and their friendship has ripened to the point where “Uncle Jack” is consulted on such serious family decisions as whether and for how much Harry will agree to make an Italian Western in Spain.
The Gallagher family ties are loose: Harry’s eyes beginning to rove; Louisa, his wife, for all her attributed New England character, living in a kind of innocent suspension, seemingly unaware of danger as it approaches; and Hill, their nineteenyear-old son, disgusted by the raffish crowd that attends his mother’s suppers. Hill has been taking courses in the cinema at the Sorbonne, and when the riots begin and the students capture first the university and then the Odéon, he becomes passionately involved.
Into the disturbance at this point enters a beautiful young American Negro girl, Samantha, “Sam” for short, drifter, totally amoral, who has a detached view of the fighting in the streets but a hungry interest in the Gallaghers, and who, for the hell of it, sets out to seduce first Hill, then Harry, and finally Louisa. Hartley does his best to intervene, and her only answer is to make a pass at him. If all of this seems slightly implausible, as it does to me, it must, I suppose, be charged off to the atmosphere of liberation which descended on Paris in that unhappy month.
Mr. Jones’s reportorial account of the uprising is more outwardly concerned with the building of the barricades, the uprooting of paving stones, the felling of the flowering trees, the endless debate and open fornication than it is with the inner motives, real or fancied, which spurred the students and which, the novelist suggests, were partly inspired by Communist agitators. There are lurid vignettes of the looters, the apache, arming themselves as they demolish the grillwork in the parks, garish scenes of the rebels in theatrical makeup perched on the roof of the Odéon, and an endless amount of running back and forth. The truth of what is happening is shrewdly explained by Uncle Jack’s mistress, Martine, who comes to cook supper for him on the nights when her bankerlover is occupied with government business; she tells the score, and she knows in advance how dramatically De Gaulle will bring France back to its senses. But by then it is too late for the Gallaghers, who betrayed and destroyed one another. The tragedy would mean more if they were more worthy of sympathy.
THE VIEW FROM TOWER HILL
by John Braine
Coward-McCann, $6.95
In John Braine’s new novel, The View From Tower Hill, there is a good deal of sexuality and moderately little love, a division of labor which accounts for much of the monotony in modern fiction. The heroine, Robin Covington, tall, fair, with hot blood usually under control, had glided smoothly through childhood and convent school, through a secretarial college, and into a coveted job in the BBC studio at Charbury. A hedonist who enjoys people, she intended to preserve her virginity until she had found a safe bet, and she found it in Clive Lendrick, the handsome, selfassured, half-owner of the Lendrick Mills, already in the money and likely to make a good deal more. There is only one rift in their engagement occasioned by a chance dinner with the young drama producer, Stephen Belgard, a small, shabby, dark man with a bad temper and a driving vitality which is already making itself telt in the studio. In his apartment, where he tries to make love to her, she realizes that he has had a lot of girls and is merely leading her on; even so, she is strongly tempted, and four months later when she goes to her marriage with Clive she has the compelling Stephen as someone to dream about.
Everything about the Lenclricks’ married life is tidy and complacent: they purchase at just the right time a comfortable home on Tower Hill, their two sons do them credit, the one at Oxford, the other pushing for promotion overseas, and for their daughter, Petronella, Clive feels a companionable affection quite other than his habitual loyalty to his wife. “He would worry about her sometimes, as he never worried about the boys; she was pretty and gentle and trusting and easily hurt The permissive society was marvelous for men, but not so hot for girls.” Actually, what with his Mercedes, his new camera, and his discovery of the pleasure of foreign films and new books, Clive at forty-seven had never been happier.
At this point Stephen Belgard, who had made his reputation on TV and been twice married and twice divorced, reappears, bringing with him “an atmosphere of danger, passion, and change.” Excited by his example, everyone begins “poking” everyone else (the verb, which the characters all use, is evidently the London or Yorkshire idiom for making love). Robin accepts Stephen as one long lost and tells him he owes her six thousand pokes; Clive in retaliation has a try with Ruth, who has been selling him books, and then With Vicky, whose drinking appalls him. But this changing of partners, and the blunt talk it engenders, as in John Updike’s Couples, grows tawdry with repetition, and of the lovers involved, only Stephen manages to retain his magnetism.
The moral, if there is one, is that a marriage of convenience has little to rely on when sex intrudes.