On the River Styx and Other Stories

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The characters in Matthiessen’s fiction are defined in negative terms--by their inability to interact with each other, by their hostility, and by their trapped existences. These people are not only alienated from each other but from their environment as well.

In “Lumumba Lives,” which first appeared in 1988, a man returns to the United States after being in the Foreign Service and finds himself so detached from people that he inspires a surly anger in others. His past is as unpalatable as his present; the reader sees someone whose existence is an unspeakable failure.

Written in 1953, “Late in the Season” relates the unspoken frustrations between a married couple, which are voiced in a struggle over a turtle they find on the road. The couple’s inability to bridge the gap between them is evidenced by the turtle’s senseless death.

Matthiessen covers all types of communication gaps--from racial, sexual, and educational to ethnic, national, and regional. Sometimes there is an effort to interact positively, but the attempt fails and even causes harm. Communication is thus seen as more than ineffective; it is a type of interference. In the 1985 story “On the River Styx,” for example, when a white New England couple vacations in a Southern town, racial and marital tensions flare up through their clumsy attempts at friendship with their black guide.

The characters in these stories are not cynical; rather, they are desperately unhappy in their estrangement. Matthiessen’s stories are deeply depressing, because his characters are so completely cut off and lack even the self-knowledge to understand what has happened to them.