Saturday, January 14, 2012
Peter Matthiessen's At Play in the Fields of the Lord is one of those mid-20th century novels I've meant to read and never got around to doing so. Well, I've finally read it, and it was well worth the time. Matthiessen can be, at turns, a dense writer, full of metaphor, and flights of reverie, but always interesting.
The novel itself is one of the clash of culture works that abounded then, and still do. The Martin Quarrier family, Martin, Hazel and their son, Billy, are small town fundamentalists who venture to the wilds of South America to convert the Niaruna Indian tribe. who live in a remote area, but an area that the government would very much like to develop and would love to have vacated by the Indians. The Quarriers are aided by another couple, the Hubens, solidly Christian folk. Along the way, the two families encounter two American Ex-Pats, Lewis Moon and his pilot buddy, Wolf, who the local commandante has "hired" to bomb the Indians out of the area. The Quarriers set up their mission which had once been a Catholic outpost, until members of the tribe murdered the missionary priest. What ensues is chaos, clashes and the dissipation of faith.
Matthiessen has richly written characters that are not stereotypes. Each is imagined vividly and all are memorable. Lewis Moon is a "half-breed" Cheyenne, brilliant, and lost. Martin Quarrier falls in love with his environs, and the people while his wife goes slowly mad. Andy Huben, the wife of Leslie, is the object of many a male fantasy. Wolf just wants to go home to his rather beatnik life in San Francisco. All are given compelling stories to share.
Matthiessen, you may recall, is also the author of In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, a non-fiction work about Leonard Pelletier, and over which he was sued by an FBi agent for defamation. He was also a founding member of the Paris Review, along with George Plimpton and the poet, Donald Hall. At the time of the magazne's beginning, he was also working for the CIA. He experimented early in the sixties with mind-bending drugs, an experience that lends to a long sequence in the novel when Lewis Moon also partakes and has visions. A very interesting man, indeed.
At Play was adapted to the screen in the early 1990's by Hector Barbenco, director of Kiss of the Spider Women. It received a mixed critical response at the time. I loved it, and not just because I got to see Darryl Hannah naked in it. The cast is terrific, with the aforementioned Ms. Hannah, John Lithgow, Aidan Quinn, Tom Berenger, Kathy Bates and Tom Waits. If you can find the movie, I highly recommend it. The Netflix doesn't seem to have it, though there are a few clips at the Imdb. The movie certainly piqued my interest in reading the book. Both achieve the level of art. Watch and read if and when you can.