At Play in the Fields of the Lord
Of the Farm
Far back upstream, so very far back in the jungles of the Amazon headwaters that not even an anthropologist has visited them, live the Indians of Peter Matthiessen’s novel, At Play in the Fields of the Lord. Perhaps this little naked tribe is the last in the world untouched by civilization. In this story, they are touched and they fall, undone by the fascination their ultimate remoteness exerts on an assortment of Americans. The novel tells how this happens, how by airplane, outboard motor, by jungle trail, the Americans at last bring the first successful contact of the modern world to the savage Niaruna. At every stage of their various journeys, the Americans are tried to the extremes of danger by the piranha-infested rivers, by the filth and disease of jungle outposts, by the treacheries of the local satrap, their enmities for one another, by drink, drugs, madness, by machine gun and rifle and pistol fire, by spears, machetes, arrows, knives, fists, and broken bottles. They are tormented day and night by lusts, racial hatreds, and religious enthusiasms. Some of them die, but some, much altered, survive even the final catastrophe.
At Play in the Fields of the Lord is then, a novel of adventure, and it is, furthermore, to bring in at once the inevitable phrase, a good old-fashioned adventure novel. Peter Matthiessen is not horsing around with the elements of an adventure story, he gives us one straight. The perils of his adventurers, both physical and spiritual, are the elements of the plot, and his plotting is serious, responsible, and so engaging that it is likely most readers will not, need not, be aware in their excitement of how skillful and even ingenious this plotting is. In the first place, the characters assembled here are no accidental or coincidental group, no mere transitory names on a hotel register or a passenger list, come together by chance with their separate fates. Each of them has his own complicated necessity for the push through the jungle to the Niaruna tribe. Their relations with one another, also, are necessary. Their confrontations, quarrels, fights, loves, are each of them necessary stages in the plot. The perils, as I have indicated, are vivid and violent and frequent; but no single adventure seems to be there just for the adventure, for the sake of the thrill, nor because, if the danger is there, our tour must be exposed to it. The events grow out of one another, accumulating in intensity, until in the end every item of character has revealed itself in action, every gun that was hanging on the wall has been proven in discharge to have been no mere ornament, and the basic predicaments of the novel’s opening have proven themselves, in their long and complex working out, to have been the true omens of fate, necessity, and action.
Two antagonists compete for the Niaruna, each wanting to save them. One is a soldier of fortune, totally disenchanted and self-debauched …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.