The Peripatetic Reviewer
FAR TORTUGA by Peter Matthiessen Random House, $10.95
In his undergraduate short stories, one of which was reprinted in The Atlantic, through his expeditions to the Amazon, the Sudan, New Guinea, and more essentially, in his seafaring as a commercial fisherman and his adventures searching for the great white shark, Peter Matthiessen has lived with the potential that at some time he would write an exceptional novel. This is it. In its impressionistic form, with its humor, its melody, and its drama. Far Tortuga is a sea story the like of which I have not read since Lord Jim.
The story begins on an April morning with the gathering of the crew of the Lillias Eden, a converted schooner with cut-down masts and powerful diesels, which is about to leave for the green turtle fishing grounds among the reefs of the southwest Caribbean. They are an assortment of natives from the Caymans and Central America, who at first sight appear to be as decrepit as the ship. Everything is at loose ends on the Eden: a propeller shaft bent; on her stern a raw new deckhouse which should have been set forward; the radio is not working; and the canvas for the catboats is old and patched.
What holds the contraption together is “Copm Raib” Avers, a magnificently drawn character. As he taunts, bullies, or cajoles his crew, they begin to assert themselves as individuals and, when they have reached the hunting grounds, as a unit. It is fascinating to watch the play of these personalities and the trials which establish them in the pecking order; the courage and skill of Will Parchment, one of the survivors of a terrible hurricane; the burly, good-tempered Byrum; the quickness and confidence of little Speedy. Each of the nine, including the one-eyed stowaway, has his characteristic way of speaking, his superstitions, his favorite stories, and the harmony of their dialects is delightful.
Raib is the dominant leader: he knows the power of the sea and has been trained since boyhood to plot his course as he reads the wind, the birds, and the stars. On this, his last voyage, he is encumbered with the presence of his eighty-year-old, semiparalyzed father and his timid, seasick young son, and baited by his degenerate brother. He is embittered by the demoralization of the fleet in which he was trained to command, and the assault on his ship by the vandals from Jamaica is the beginning of a tragedy that drags at the heart.
WHERE HAVE YOU GONE, JOE DIMAGGIO? by Maury Allen Dutton, $7.95
Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Bobby Jones, the most popular trio in American sports, became a quartet when the New York Yankees picked up Joe DiMaggio for $25,000. Joe is a very reticent man, and to get the story of his life in baseball and in private, Maury Allen had to interview some 250 people: DiMaggio’s teammates and managers, his opponents and his pals, the doctors who repaired his heels and other parts of his anatomy that were hurt in the wear and tear, his friends who knew about his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, and the men with whom he plays golf today. Like The Boys of Summer, this book will fascinate anyone who is interested in inside baseball, and the best of the interviews, so sensibly interwoven, add measurably to our appreciation of a magnificent athlete who is also an admirable man.
Joe DiMaggio started playing baseball when he was six (“It was all I ever wanted to know”), and he came to the Yankees’ training camp in 1936, a rookie with a reputation as a hitter. He spoke only when spoken to and let his line drives do the talking. He was lucky in having Joe McCarthy for his first manager, a disciplinarian who demanded decorum off the field and intelligence on it. McCarthy, who saw that he had something special, let the boy take his time. Center field in Yankee Stadium is the toughest in the league, and DiMaggio played it shallow because with his speed and anticipation he could run down the long ball. He hit any pitcher, right or left, again because of anticipation: “He had that knack of waiting on the ball,” says Hank Greenberg, “and, if it was a breaking pitch, hitting it at the last instant after it broke.”
Joe was the youngest of four players from San Francisco in the pin stripes, and in the early days Lefty Gomez, the great joker on the team, adopted him. They called Joe “Cruiser” for the way he went after a ball, or plain “Dago.” Gomez was his closest companion in the clubhouse; later, if the Yankees won, DiMaggio would dine at Toots Shor’s with the proprietor. The interview with Shor is remarkable for the light it throws on both men: how Commissioner Landis persuaded Shor that he must quit gambling for the sake of the ballplayers who came to his place; and how, when the Yankees lost, Joe would be so depressed that he would send in a message by the doorman, Toots would come out, and together they would walk the streets. Losing always made Joe silent and sore. One afternoon they were playing the Red Sox and young brother Dom, in center field, robbed the Cruiser of two triples, catching each close to the wall. They were to have dined with Toots, but Joe was so disgusted he called it off. There was a dedication in Joe DiMaggio, rare in any professional athlete. He knew he was good; he created an image of himself and lived up to it.
DiMaggio was over the hill when Casey Stengel came to the Yankees, and Jerry Coleman’s account of Casey’s bluster and lack of tact is not flattering. The most that Joe himself would say is. “the old man had his ways and I had mine.”
Joe’s love for Marilyn Monroe outlasted their short marriage and cannot be swiftly paraphrased. As his lawyer. Edward Bennett Williams, puts it, “Joe carries a torch bigger than the Statue of Liberty. It has not lessened through the years. He was crazy about her. Still is.” He was on his way to ask her to remarry him when she died.
by May Sarton
by May Sarton
At her first dinner in the White House following the appointment of her husband to the Supreme Court, Mrs. Oliver Wendell Holmes was asked by President Theodore Roosevelt for her impressions of the capital. “Never before,” she replied, “have I been in a place where so many men have outgrown their wives.” Miss Sarton’s provocative novel is about a wife who has outgrown her husband, and after twenty-seven years of marriage, decides that she has had enough. Her fight for liberation is recounted by their closest friend, the well-to-do bachelor familiarly known as “Pip,”
who is almost as shocked as Poppy’s husband and who, in his endeavor to reconcile, becomes the wailing wall for all concerned.
Poppy Whitelaw’s dissatisfaction with her Reed does not find words until their three children are fully grown. She resents that Reed’s success as an industrialist has taken him outside their family life. Her rebellion begins when her husband’s overpowering determination compels their oldest son, Harry, a conscientious objector, to accept the draft and serve in Vietnam. For years she found a private solace in sculpturing, an expensive hobby in which Reed indulged her without much sympathy. But “The Watergate televised sessions, with all they revealed of how easily nice cleancut young men could deceive themselves in a climate of power” (Poppy’s words in her letter of renunciation) awakened her to the poison in her own life, and she became determined to get out. At the age of fifty Poppy is naïve, spoiled, but stubborn; she has no illusions about her art, and whether she can buck her angry, punitive mate is the question these crucial conversations seek to decide.
Miss Sarton is usually best in her portraits of women, and Poppy, with her feelings of outrage and despair, is altogether believable. The interfering bachelor, Pip, has a feminine streak in him. The best scenes are when he is drawing out the twins, who applaud the divorce, or defending Poppy from the conventional criticism of her mother and mother-in-law. The desire of a woman who has been suffocated in her marriage to be true to herself in the last third of her life is very much of a reality and no longer considered a scandal in our society. The wonder is that Poppy waited so long.
THE GREAT AMERICAN FOURTH OF JULY PARADE by Archibald MacLeish University of Pittsburgh Press, $4.95
Repeatedly in his poetry and prose, in poems such as “Colloquy for the States,” Archibald MacLeish has reminded us of the American ethos; his words had a bracing effect during the demagoguery of Senator McCarthy, and they do so now after the disillusion of Watergate in this Verse Play for Radio, commissioned for the Bicentennial by the International Poetry Forum.
The play is one of contrasts, illuminated by his stage directions and by sound effects which stir the imagination. The poet builds upon the historic friendship between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and upon how, after the political strife which had made them enemies, they became reconciled in old age. In Adams’ words, “We ought not to die before we had explained ourselves to one another,”and so for fourteen years of letterwriting they reviewed their hopes for the nation they had created. Thev died within a few hours of each other, on July 4, 1824, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration.
Now, from their tombs, MacLeish has them resume their exchange: Jefferson still exuberant in his belief in our republic, Adams wryly skeptical, while above them “an Honorable somebody from Washington” mounts the podium to remind a Bicentennial audience that “THE U.S.A. IS NUMBER ONE!"The orator’s blather and the cynical response of his listeners is set against the smoldering dismay and indignation of the two Founders who risked their lives for liberty:
We struck that bell, sir. It was
we . . .
started the metal singing, felled
like crows across the continent of
Europe . . .
we . . .
started the metal singing, felled
like crows across the continent of
Europe . . .
This contrast between the timeless aspiration and the contemporary distrust, over the rising theme of Beethoven’s Eroica, gives the play its final exhortation.
LIFE & LETTERS CONTRIBUTORS:
John Fowles’s latest book is The Ebony Tower.
Melvin Maddocks writes for the Christian Science Monitor.
Benjamin DeMott, Edward Weeks, and Phoebe Adams contribute regularly to these pages.
POETS IN THIS ISSUE
Richard Wilbur (page 57) is president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Howard Moss’s (page 66) new poems, Buried City, will appear later this year.