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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Far Tortuga is a beautifully written, poetic adventure story, a haunting tale of men in conflict with the sea, one another, and themselves. Peter Matthiessen has crafted a spare and eloquent elegy to the ravaged Caribbean and to those men who have sailed and strived on that sea all the days of their lives. This book is full of the lore and legend of the Caribbean and of heart-piercing descriptions of the natural world, but it does not romanticize the life of the sea, nor is it weighted down with portentous symbolic meaning, as are many sea stories. Far Tortuga is a starkly realistic and unsentimental story of hardship and defeat.

The plot has three intricately interwoven strands: the rhythms of the sea and the sky, the last voyage of the Lillias Eden, and the internal struggles of the men who sail on this ill-fated vessel. It could be argued that the protagonist here is not Raib Avers but the endangered, impassive world of nature. The human characters do not even appear until the twelfth page, and all but one of them have disappeared by the last page while “the sun, coming hard around the world” is on page 406 as on page 5. “White birds” move across the “black beach” on the first morning as on the last. Twelve of the fourteen chapters begin with a reference to the natural world. Virtually every page reminds one that the wind and the stars and the sun and the sea are awesome, enduring, and alien.

The central plot line is lean and simple; it charts the course of Raib’s ship, the Lillias Eden, a ragged, sixty-foot schooner, and its equally ragged crew as they sail south out of Grand Cayman in search of the last turtles of the season. Captain Avers needs a good catch to complete the conversion of this aged schooner to power, but his quest seems doomed from the outset because he sails without a chronometer or running lights or life jackets or fire extinguishers or a radio which can send messages. Furthermore, one of the schooner’s propeller shafts is bent; one of its engines has a mysterious vibration; one of its cat boats leaks; the masts have been shortened; the rigging is worn and slack; the sails are patched; the helmsman cannot see forward beyond the partially built structure which is to be the new pilothouse; and the crew is composed of “two drunkards, one thief, and five idiots.”

The Lillias Eden sails south for three days to the turtle reefs off the coast of Nicaragua. Raib wastes a day trying to register with the Nicaraguan customs officials and then moves out to Bobel Cay to turtle. Trouble waits for the Lillias Eden at Bobel Cay, trouble in the shape of Desmond Eden, his scurvy crew, and his wild, starving Jamaican “rangers.” Raib moves on after taking his dying father, Captain Andrew Avers, on board—the old man had suffered a stroke while on Desmond’s boat, the Davy Jones. In spite of bad weather and coiling tensions on board, Raib’s crew comes together to produce a few days of hard sailing and hard work at Edinburgh Reef and Cape Bank Reef. The Lillias Eden then sails to Miskita Cay to “crawl” its turtle catch in mangrove pens. Captain Andrew dies there; the menacing figure of Desmond Eden surfaces again; and Athens Ebanks leaves the ship. After finally registering with the customs officials at Bragman’s Cove, where Vemon Dilbert Evers drunkenly refuses to return to the Lillias Eden, Captain Avers with a crew of six sets a course for Far Tortuga, which the preface suggested was “a mere dream and legend of the turtle men.”

Raib expects to find not only turtles but also a lovely and unspoiled cay at Far Tortuga: “Dat island is a very nice place. A very nice place.” Desmond has been there before him, however, and has despoiled the island and left his violent Jamaicans behind. The rangers pillage the Lillias Eden and tempt Miguel Moreno Smith (Brown) into deserting his shipmates and joining their wild crew. Brown and the Jamaican pirates go ashore to drink and whore, but it is clear that they will return,...

(The entire section is 1,757 words.)