Men's Lives (Magill's Literary Annual 1987)
Few subjects have received the loving attentiveness which Peter Matthiessen gives the men who live and fish along the eastern tip of Long Island. They are, as in the book’s subtitle, “surfmen and baymen,” or fishermen who fish in the surf and, in proper season, go to the bays and inlets of Long Island for scallops, clams, oysters, eels, and more. The tenderness suffusing this book is analogous to the feeling a naturalist shows for a vanishing species, the difference being that Matthiessen is one with the men he portrays, worries over, and loves in a way no naturalist can be with a threatened creature.
After graduation from Yale University in the early 1950’s, Matthiessen settled on Long Island and became a surfman and bayman. During his first three years, he worked for Ted Lester on a seine-haul crew. That is to say he netted fish from a boat in a mode not unlike that practiced by Jesus’ disciples. His career destiny eventually led him to other things—the books of fiction and nonfiction for which he is famous—but the three years on Lester’s boat made an impression on the writer which the intervening years have only served to deepen. As he says in Men’s Lives: The Surfmen and Baymen of the South Fork, the pleasures of a royalty check paled next to the rich daily involvement with water, wind, fish, and fellow workers. Matthiessen is a fisherman of the world as well as the waters of Long Island, however, and it is fortunate for his readers that he could not totally submerge his consciousness in the wordless tumble of the surf, that he followed his destiny as a writer, becoming a fisher of men. His present catch is a book crammed with anecdote, lore, diagrams, pencil drawings of nets and fish traps, and some wonderful photographs of the men working the surf and bays.
Men’s Lives is no blind glorification or idealization of a life, but it emphatically if joyfully emphasizes how archaic this fishing is in its demands upon the men who do it, upon their facility for surviving physically amid daily threats of drowning while charting the narrows of living without a regular salary, a pension plan, sick leave, or any of the other “guarantees” on which the denizens of nearby New York City depend. The difficulty of making a living from selling fish netted along shore in a rowboat (or, since the 1960’s, an outboard-motor-powered rowboat) is continually mentioned by the fishermen whose words Matthiessen preserves by quoting them directly. So uncertain is their work that the men hope that their own boys will find another path, yet their sons typically turn to fishing, becoming accomplished veterans by the age of fifteen. The ancestors of Milt Miller and Ted Lester, two of Matthiessen’s friends who seine-haul, settled with the first wave of immigrants to Long Island in the 1680’s, learned from Indians how to fish and catch shellfish, and which fish to eat and which to use for fertilizer. The descendants of the families who learned from the Indians go to the ocean today in the same way their ancestors did, with a few concessions to modern technology: pickups, winches, and the outboard motor. Milt Miller and Ted Lester have in their memories a lore accumulated over those centuries, a residue and substratum whose preciousness Matthiessen desires to establish. Watching Ted Lester repairing a net, Matthiessen observes: “I realized that watching those blunt weather-glazed hands slipping that net needle through the twine with such speed and deftness was one of the great many small pleasures of life on the beach that I took for granted.”
Among the many sides of the fishermen’s life Matthiessen describes, it is the haul seining which is the central image. It is work as routinely dangerous as riding wild horses, and so demanding of knowledge as to require of a fisherman the ability to smell the oils released from baitfish which are being slaughtered below the surface. Seining is fishing done with a net called a haul-seine, a long band of net which midway contains a pouch of stronger netting called the bag. To set the seine, fishermen secure one end on shore to a winch on the bed of a pickup. The net is dumped from the boat while rowing or motoring into the surf. Its upper edge remains upper due to cork floats, while the lower edge sinks to form a submerged curving wall behind the boat. The boat travels on an arc back to the beach, where, once ashore, having negotiated waves that can flip the boat and entangle them in the net, the men hook the net-end to a second pickup. The net is then pulled in by the crew on both ends while the pickup without a winch noses along to meet the other truck. As the trucks meet, the net has been retrieved completely and the arc it originally described narrowed to a corridor. The fish, if fish there are, have nowhere to turn but into the bag. The crew pulls the bag ashore and sorts the catch, money fish going into the pickup beds and “trash” left lying along shore for the birds. A good catch will be hundreds of pounds of such standards as striped bass, flounder (four species), blackfish, weakfish, tilefish, pufferfish, and haddock. (Matthiessen observes that the value of a fish is determined by market popularity and not necessarily the fisherman’s opinion of what makes good eating. Not many of the haul-seiners will eat striped bass, yet it remains the fish of choice at the Fulton Fish Market in New York City.) After loading fish, net, and boat, the crew returns to a packing shed to box the catch. A typical day of haul-seining may consist of three or four expeditions, with the day beginning around three in the morning and ending with the final packing at ten in the evening....
(The entire section is 2357 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 1987)
Booklist. LXXXII, May 15, 1986, p. 1343.
Library Journal. CXI, May 1, 1986, p. 112.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 24, 1986, p. 9.
National Fisherman. LXVII, November, 1986, p. 134.
The New York Review of Books. XXXIII, October 23, 1986, p. 21.
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Newsweek. CVIII, August 11, 1986, p. 57.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXIX, March 28, 1986, p. 44.
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