Let's begin low-brow: "Far Tortuga" is the ultimate beach read. Read this while the sun strikes the sand and the waves crash and you'll practically hallucinate yourself into a full blown virtual reality. But even if you're landlocked, Matthiessen does a masterful job of evoking the sights, smells, and sounds of the Carribean. His success is due largely to the pungent, poetic, shorthand style of writing, unique to Matthiessen's ouevre, and perhaps American literature. I'd guess it'd be more obvioulsy an "experimental" style if the author didn't pull it off so adroitly. Visually, there's lot of white space on the pages of this book. Near the end, there are pages that might contain as little as a phrase, a name, or less--all for reasons that seem more organic than experimental. Much dialog between the crew of the Lillius Eden is unattributed, and not set off by quotation marks. Any initial confusion this creates is short-lived, as it is through the character's talk that we learn to distinguish them (it's also how Matthiessen reveals their seperate dreams, ambitions, sins, etc.). I can't over-emphasize that these stylistic oddities are more then mere quirks, but truly seem to be the best, most organic (and maybe only) way to tell the tale.
And what a tale. Though what exactly is so gripping about it is hard to say. The turtle-hunting voyage of the "Lillias Eden" seems ill-fated from the start: the turtles have already been over-hunted into scarcity and it's mighty late in the season to cast off. But that doesn't stop the ragged, largely reprobate crew of from embarking--for most, it's the best chance they have in a working-class third world life of dwindling returns. There's likely to be a lot of cultural distance between these guys and the people reading about them, so it's all the more remarkable how Matthiessen manages to make these characters unique individuals whislt also making them universally identifiable Everymen. This is no mean feat.
Lo, there are still some turtle left in the sea--but there are also pirates (the unromantic modern ones), reefs, wrecks of ships and wrecks of men. To say much more would be to tresspass on too many potential delights.
This is a multi-faceted, multi-leveled work. Thomas Pynchon's blurb (strange but true) on the original hardcover suggests while "Far Tortuga" is a "masterfully spun yarn" it's also a "deep declaration of love for the planet." But this is the ecological concern of a lifelong naturalist, really only witnessed by the book's always-evocative poetic descriptions of nature. And for "poetic," don't dare read "mushy." This is a supple, muscular poetry (indeed a masculine poetry, as befitting it's subjects), a whole lot closer to Homer than Rod McKuen. It's a book Conrad would have embraced, maybe even championed. Maybe Robert W. Service, too. It's a book of unique delights, one of my all-time faves, and I really envy anyone their first reading.