I was in Europe, with the Army, when At Play in the Fields of the Lord came out. In 1965. I paid it no heed. My literary tastes at the time had drifted from academic to more popular influences—Mailer, Baldwin, Ellison, James Jones, Eugene Burdick...—writing I considered edgier or maybe more accessible, or a mix of the two, than the classics seemed to offer. I vaguely remember reading about At Play when it hit the reviews, and I vaguely remember thinking, nah, not for me. And that was that. Never looked back.
Until a couple weeks ago. Once again my literary adviser, Fictionaut.com's Kitty Boots, rescued me from the obscurity of going to my grave without having given a well-worthy novel at least due glance. At her subtle invitation I glanced and glanced some more and soon got yanked into the maw of Peter Matthiessen's masterpiece which I suspect by then already had entered the Valhalla of classic literary works availing precious few alibis to self-respecting literati.
It was perhaps opportune that I had come down with a particularly virulent strain of flu when I started reading At Play. Or maybe not. My fevered nightmares and the drug-drenched interior raves of Lewis Moon were jibing, either accidentally or the book was deliberately leaking psychic chemistry into my blood. I had to lay off awhile until I could be sure which mental state was in charge. Coherence remained obscure in both venues, but in the one, Matthiessen's narrative artistry did promise to get me over the jungle wall and out of immediate danger without a pillow soak. The following might describe the nightmare of either of us, the other being Lewis Moon, half-breed soldier of fortune experiencing the start of a life changing epiphany among a primitive tribe of Indians he was being blackmailed to drive out of their home in the Amazon jungle—with bombs and machineguns if necessary. The catalyst is an Indian concoction with powerful hallucinogenic properties:
The bottle stood upon the sill; he drank it to the bottom.
He felt like crying, but did not. He had not cried in twenty years—no, more. Had he ever cried? And yet he did not really feel like crying; he felt like laughing, but did not. [...]
He crouched beside the window sill, his back to the world without, and far away he heard them coming, the marching of huge nameless armies coming toward him, and once again his hands turned cold. He felt very cold. On the wall of the room, over the door, he saw a huge moth with a large white spot on each wing. It palpitated gently; he could hear the palpitations, and the spots were growing. And there was a voice, a hollow voice, very loud, and very far away, calling through glass, and there were hands on him and he was shaken violently. The voice rose and crashed in waves, rolling around his ears; it was getting dark. […]
...colors rich and somber now, and shapes emerging; the shapes flowered, rose in threat and fell away again. Fiends, demons, dancing spiders with fine webs of silver chain. A maniac snarled and slavered, and rain of blood beat down upon his face. Teeth, teeth grinding in taut rage, teeth tearing lean sinew from gnarled bone. Idiocy danced hand in hand with lunacy and hate, rage and revenge; the dungeon clanked and quaked with ominous sounds, and he kept on going, down into the darkness…
I banished my demons eventually with a Z-pak and prednisone. Lewis Moon stole an airplane in the dead of night, flew over the jungle, and parachuted into a village of savages who received him as a god.
Sound familiar? The horror, the horror? I never read much Conrad, either, back in the day. I'm drawn now irresistibly to that master of dark. Because of the magic. The magic that one critic claimed is missing from At Play. In his whiny New York Times review, Eliot Fremont-Smith starts out with such effusive praise one might expect he and Matthiessen wore identical fraternity rings. Then, after presumably allowing a disdainful sniff, he unloads this: “...at every page, one is interested, admiring, agreeing even--but not transported, not engrossed. It's like reading Conrad, but without the magic (I have no other word for it). Because of the book's many obvious qualities and because passion is there, powerful though fixed, one's disappointment at being less than absorbed is keen and eventually overriding.”
Speak for yourself, Fremont-Smith. At Play absorbed the bejeebies out of me. At the same time I'm curious about “the magic” that apparently elevates Conrad to a sublimity only the most cynical, tenured lit. professor might deride. No swoons in this class!
But I cannot agree to such a rigid division, with “magic” on one side and “merely explainable” on the other. Not in the New York Times, anyway, where one expects literary reviews to be, well, literary rather than metaphysical. Unless Fremont-Smith found himself in a deadline hurry and used “magic” as code for “too subtly artistic to try to explain here given my space/time limitations,” or “Conrad gives me acid flashbacks.”
Then again, allowing different toques for different bloques, I can easily say the subtle artistry Matthiessen employs throughout At Play insinuated itself so deeply into my psyche it summoned a long-buried bummer or two from my days of deeeep breaths and tightly constricted exhales. The kind of hypersensitivity that focused on minute nuances—a loaded glint in the eye, lethal tone or emphasis of a distinctive syllable, a word projecting all of its connotations at once with one in particular aimed directly at your deepest insecurity. All but you laughed, secretly, it seemed. You felt the sweat in your armpits. Paranoia, we called it before the California argot took over.
Matthiessen endows his characters with this extreme acumen to the extent it lends credence to theories that explain ESP in purely physical terms. Hesitation or movement at the wrong moment, a barely perceptible change in pitch of voice, timing of a facial expression, a bead of sweat can give people away, offer glimpses into character. Here's a scene that illustrates the sudden shift in dynamics between the two mercenaries, Moon and Wolfie, flying over the jungle with a crate of bombs they're intending to drop on the Indians. The longtime friends are tense. They're not agreed over the mission. Wolfie suddenly pulls his knife and draws blood from Moon's throat over a perceived anti-semitic slur (Wolfie's Jewish):
Moon glanced at him quickly; he caught the faint humorous flicker before Wolfie could suppress it. “Not that that’s the only reason,” Wolfie snarled.
“Did you see that guy shoot an arrow at the plane?” Moon considered knocking Wolfie’s arm away and throwing the plane into a roll. But though he had little to lose by this maneuver, he had nothing at all to gain; Wolfie would kill him with the first reflex. Then he heard Wolfie’s voice again, and from its tone he knew that he had won.
“That’s a reason not to bomb? Are you outa your mind, Moon? You really mean you’d cop out on our only chance because some lunatic of a Indian is nutty enough to shoot an arrow at us?”
And though this was exactly what Moon did mean, he now turned his head and gazed coldly at his partner. He was sorry that he had pleaded, however obliquely, and now that he had gained an edge, the knife point at his chin infuriated him.
I found Moon and Wolfie the most interesting of a small ensemble cast of characters. A close third was Father Xantes, a clever, sardonic Catholic priest competing evangelically with two Baptist missionary couples. Ironies abound. I could almost hear the Kingston Trio plinking and harmonizing throughout with their version of Sheldon Harnack's Merry Minuet: “They're rioting in Africa...and I don't like anybody very much.” The protestants in At Play hate the Catholics, and can't get along with each other. The Indians hate all of the white interlopers, and can't get along with each other.
All of the characters are carefully and realistically drawn. At times I wanted to slap one or another of the Baptists, and I kept thinking of Claude Rains playing Father Xantes in the movie, reprising his role of Capt. Louis Renault in Casablanca. Probably some sort of chemical flashback.
[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]