It's a simple story in which little happens except that men, without really understanding it as such, confront nature and existence and the unwavering progress of time. It's the time of turtle fishing in the banks and reefs of the Caribbean along the coast of Central America. There isn't much for the crew to do on the voyage to the turtle grounds and between stations within the scattering of reefs where they fish. There is constant chatter about the intricacies of turtle fishing, of lives spent on the sea handling ships and boats, of the petty rivalries of men and families. Change is a theme--they're aware of modern times seen against days now gone when the fishing and their lives were seen to be better. Threaded through the dialogue Matthiessen has given us on almost every page sketches which indicate such things as time of day, weather conditions, the chop of the sea, the shine of stars. I felt my high regard for this novel was kind of authenticated and my spirit made glad a few years ago when I read somewhere that Matthiessen considered this book--and think about the many he wrote, including the powerful and popular At Play in the Fields of the Lord or The Snow Leopard or Shadow Country--to be his favorite.
At windward passage, four hundred miles due east, the sun is rising. The trade winds freshen at first light, and the sea rises in long ridges, rolling west. The sun, coming hard around the world: the island rises from the sea, sinks, rises, holds. Light polishes gray-silver cabin sides, glows in the bolls of the wild cotton, shines the dun flanks of a silken cow in pastures of rough guinea grass; a gumbo limbo tree, catching up sun in red translucent peals of shedding bark, glows on black burned-over ground between gray jutting bones of ocean limestone. Lizards scatter in the leaves and sun-spots that stray in the church door, and a hermit crab, snapped shut, rocks minutely in the silence. All kinds of birds and rats and wildcats, jaguars, y'know, and dogs, and what dey calls ringtails--all dem vermin comes out de swamps and jungles dat lays just behind dat beach, and wild hogs, too, dey say--all of dat is swarmin de beaches, and de few dat slips past de vermin got to scromble through dat big surf dere, which is one of de worst in all de world, and dem dat gets past de breakers, dey got to deal with all de sharks and fish in de deep water, and de mon- o'-war birds pickin at'm from de top when dey surfaces to get dere breath. Mon-o'-war birds. Dat mornin de sea is covered with baby turtle and de sky is black with birds, just black with mon-o'-war birds, swoopin down.
FAR TORTUGA is also an earthy book, full of raw humor, concerned with sailing and fishing practicalities, and peopled by broken and boisterous characters struggling to figure out their place in a rapidly shifting society and global economy.
We learn about the nine men from the conversations they have - they are at sea, there is little else to do while they travel to the fishing grounds. The line spaces vary, the text starts in different locations along the line, there are sketches and smudges of ink.
A practicing Zen Buddhist throughout the second half of his life, Matthiessen writes every word of Tortuga as if it were a meditation. Mark my words, someday this book will be widely read in literature classes (if the human species doesn't wipe itself out first by ignoring Matthiessen's message of respect for the physical Earth).
It just wasn't my kind of book. What disappointed me was the huge amount of dialogue.