IN each of his 20 books of reportage and fiction, Peter
Matthiessen converts the act of writing into a partly muscular,
partly moral event. His lean prose moves firmly down the page's
blank face and onward to book's end, describing perhaps how he once
climbed a Himalayan summit or canoed through an Amazonian forest in
search of some elusive truth. A highly honest writer, he does not
commit to paper what first he has not sought, tried, and found for
The tie that binds Matthiessen's fiction and nonfiction writing
into one voice is the vital question of wilderness and its
disappearance from both landscape and human spirit. "I try to plead
for what is being lost," he explains, "so later I won't have to
eulogize what might be dead."
An intersecting concern for native lands and native peoples seems
to underscore all his work, whether in Peru with "The Cloud Forest"
and "At Play in the Fields of the Lord," in Africa with "The Tree
Where Man Was Born" and the forthcoming "African Silences," or, in
their own way, even along the Atlantic Coast with "Far Tortuga" and
"Men's Lives," his 1986 account of Long Island's dorymen.
Matthiessen makes the most of chance opportunities to travel to
distant destinations. Following invitations to join a zoological
expedition in Nepal, a shark hunt on the high seas, and an
ethnographic field study in New Guinea, he fashioned nature
travelogues that are equally literary, scientific, and personal. His
highly plotted account of Stone Age tribal warfare in "Under the
Mountain Wall," for instance, was admired equally by Truman Capote
and academic anthropologists.
Given his reputation and higher output as a writer of nonfiction,
Matthiessen surprisingly says he feels he might rather have followed
his original course as a novelist. "Nonfiction started out only as a
way to put bread on the table," he says. "One way or another I've
done a lot of it over the years, but I'd like to keep writing
fiction from now on."
"Killing Mister Watson," only his second novel published since
1965, appeared last year to great acclaim. Based on a legendary
figure who lived at the turn of the century in the backwaters of the
Florida Everglades, where Matthiessen spent much of his youth and
often returns, the book reconstructs the testimony of semi-fictive
characters who might have witnessed Watson's murder.
Writing in the preface, and aptly summing up the need for
plausibility that underlies all his fiction, Matthiessen notes that
"almost nothing here is history. On the other hand, there is nothing
that could not have happened." The book's reliance on strong
characters who speak for themselves in an indelibly regional dialect
brings to mind both the experimental discourse in his previous
fiction and his use of other people's keenly heard testimonials in
THAT his 10th book of nonfiction, "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse,"
should fill a bookstore window in New York and land on the San
Francisco bestseller list this month, eight years after its initial
publication, is perhaps cause for wonder. That in the meantime it
was forced by a bitter libel suit into a detour to the US Supreme
Court, where an author's basic right to free speech was reaffirmed,
is certainly cause for celebration - even from someone as serious as