“Modern time, mon…”

Peter Matthiessen died this year after writing many fine books, fiction and non-fiction. Far Tortuga was his favorite, a novel of social and environmental disintegration.
The characters, all men, are nearly the last of the “turtlers,” working a lonely region of the Caribbean between the Cayman Islands and Honduras. Matthiessen was a famous naturalist and, for a few early years, a commercial fisherman. The descriptions of sea and sky, reefs and mangrove cays, storms and fair weather, are vivid, endlessly varied. The environment frames the story which is told almost entirely in dialog in the present tense.
The talk is terrific; you may find yourself sounding like a turtler after finishing a few chapters. I’ve been saying, “Modern time, mon…” since I first read the book thirty-five years ago. Matthiessen keeps himself in the deep background; the story tells itself insofar as possible. It is not a happy story, although (almost grudgingly) it bears a grim redemption. It is a tough hard-nosed book, lightened with flashes of humor and tenderness among the men, the more affecting for the relentless forces surrounding them.
The book establishes a primal level of experience that might serve as a foundation, similar to the coral reefs in Far Tortuga that, in time, give rise to islands.
The writing and the unusual visual layout of the text are superb. “It won no awards,” Matthiessen said wryly in a recent interview.

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