Far Tortuga is so seaworthy a novel that to praise it is to place it in extremis. We are all so thirsty for good sea stories these days that even a shallow book like Jaws gets compared to the Odyssey and sells commensurately—stale oysters at a dime a dozen. Peter Matthiessen's new novel (Random House, $10.95) is probably too tough to sell that easily, though it deserves to.
This is far and away the best modern seagoing novel that has appeared on my horizon. Matthiessen prepared us for it with such works as The Cloud Forest, Under the Mountain Wall and At Play in the Fields of the Lord, sensitive books that showed an expertise in natural history and a deep understanding of man as a part of that history. But those were only finger exercises. Far Tortuga demonstrates his total hardhanded grasp: a language as whitecapped as the Yucatan Channel under a Force Five norther; a plot that scorches and soothes like the wind beneath a tall Caribbean sun; characters whose experiences taste precisely like a mouthful of rice and beans sluiced down with rum and brackish water from the scuttlebutt. In short, a book with a bone in its teeth.
Nine men in a scabby schooner shape a course from Grand Cayman to the Miskito Cays off Nicaragua. The time is April, a cruel month indeed, and their purpose is killing green turtles. Far Tortuga deals with life as well as death: a last taste of the hard life on the sea. And the "duppies" (Caymanese for ghosts) that dog them en route, the notch-finned shark that heralds at least one death, the memories of earlier ships that foundered on those coral banks, of crews and captains lost to hurricane and human stupidity. And, finally, the murderous intruders from Jamaica. Through it all runs the ironic theme: "Modern time, mon." Old days are gone.
The deaths of men and turtles may well be interlinked. Clearly, the sea does not care.
One warning: Matthiessen uses a heavy Caribbean-English dialect that can be a bit off-putting at first, along with an occasionally irritating spurt into something resembling haiku typography. Do not let these arty devices worry you. They work, finally, as effectively as a turtler's net. Anyone who reads this book will sigh and weep for the coral-bright seas as plaintively as any green turtle belly-up on a hardwood deck. Or roar as joyfully as any Greek sailor of Homer's time.
Sea stories—the really good ones—do that to you.