Terry Gross’s especially illuminating interview with Peter Matthiessen on a recent Fresh Air sent me on a beeline to the Torresdale Free Library branch for that author’s recent collection of short stories.
It’s an odd gathering, inasmuch as the first works in the collection date from his beginnings as a writer in the 1950s. (He was one of the founders of the Paris Review.)
To my taste the early ones were no great loss, uncollected. But as ballast to get the later ones into circulation—oh me oh my. Especially “Travelin’ Man,” about a black convict trying to elude a captor on a Carolina tidal marsh; “The Wolves of Aguila,” in which a man perishes on the desert border between Arizona and Mexico; and, best of all, “On the River Styx.”
The first two are harrowing in the vividness with which they portray natural habitats as “enemies” of man. “November on the Carolina coast is cold at night, a dark clear cold that kills the late mosquitoes,” is the way “Travelin’ Man” begins. “Toward dusk, a black man slithered from a drainage ditch. He moved swiftly on his belly, writhing out across a greasy bog and vanishing into the sawgrass by the river.”
The convict is indeed traveling light. If he doesn’t become a part of nature, he’s had it.
His peril increases when a white poacher realizes he is on his turf. They circle and trail each other like the other animals in the food chain of the salt marsh. The particularities of that nature which spell the difference between life and death for the black man are read by him with a brilliance that puts the concept of verbal literacy into doubt. And he finally gets his man, by virtue of his superior survival skills—but ironically loses because of his superior humanity.
It is a test of Matthiessen’s skill as a nature writer that in “Wolves” the arid desert is just as vividly embodied as an ambience of disaster.
But “Styx” is the masterpiece of the collection. A liberal D.C. couple want to do some esoteric fishing in the Everglades. That backwater is a subculture for which their very sophistication cripples them. Their Sambo black guide steals their tape machine, and their ambiguous reactions put them at the most untender mercies of the Crackerocracy that still rules this roost by its own primordial standards.
“On the pale flats,” it begins, “the lone trace of man was a leaning stake marking some lost channel that a storm or shift of current had filled in.” It’s an emblem of their moral helplessness in a marginal world for which all their civilizing skills has unprepared them to survive.
The remarkable thing about this writer is the undercurrent of menace and terror he creates in the most disparate milieux. Alas, blind spot that it is in my literary experience, this is my first acquaintance with an author I’m amazed to learn was born the same year I was—1927.
I’ve got some catching up to do. And thanks to Terry Gross for making the “minor” side of this writer irresistible.