All memoirs are transgressions. Some are written to wound, some use elaborate mechanisms to shield family and friends, and some show you the author sorting out their feelings on the page. Do I love this person I’m writing about? Do I hate them? Do I want to exalt them or spit on them? Is this not what a memoir is for: to figure it out? Anyone who really tries is going to leave a few bruises, intentionally or not.
Lucas Matthiessen, the author of a new memoir, First Light: A Journey Out of Darkness, was a social worker (he died from cancer at 69, last summer, less than a year before the publication of the book, his first) who grew up in New York during the 1960s. Born into an alcoholic WASP family, Lucas had his first beers in grade school on the roof of his parents’ West Village town house, as they partied below. By his 20s, suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, a poisoned marriage, and a professional reputation as a lunchtime drunk, he was consuming a fifth of vodka a day. Rehab turned his life around, and in his 30s, Lucas became a successful administrator of drug-treatment centers, all as a rare genetic disease, retinitis pigmentosa, gradually rendered him blind.
It’s an impressive story told without rationalization or backhanded praise. Instead of telling us that he drank to console himself for not rescuing humanity or being the world’s greatest parent, Lucas simply says he drank because it made him feel “intelligent, funny, social, sexual, and otherwise on a par with everyone else. It was the magical elixir that helped me feel comfortable in the world.”
To give that up while losing the ability to see is heroic, yet the book is less about drinking or blindness than it’s about a third and ultimately more hopeless struggle. Lucas Matthiessen was the eldest son of Peter Matthiessen, the controversial postwar novelist and travel writer, and First Light is an attempt to make peace with a father who definitely wasn’t interested in winning parenting awards.
Peter, who died in 2014, was the author of more than 30 books. Some remain in print, though not his first few, which critics dismissed as failed attempts at the Great American Novel. It wasn’t until he switched genres that Peter, to his unending frustration, would become a regular in The New Yorker with his three- and two-part series on traversing the Amazon and climbing the Himalayas.
Peter wanted fame as an artist, not as an adventurer. He considered nonfiction a lesser art form: carpentry rather than sculpture, in his words, even in the hands of a stylist like George Plimpton, his lifelong friend and rival. Plimpton, with whom he attended prep school and co-founded The Paris Review, might have been the most recognizable writer in America, but not only was he a carpenter, his subject matter was sports. He was a lightweight.
First Light is an attempt to make peace with a father who definitely wasn’t interested in winning parenting awards.
Peter’s ambitions were bigger: great art, serious politics, and the mysteries of human consciousness. His métier, he liked to say, was global injustice, preferably in Stone Age settings. (A tendency to denounce showed up early: “Mr. M. belabors us unmercifully for the sins of our ancestors,” a New York Times reviewer wrote.) Whereas Plimpton could barely get four-letter words out of his mouth, Matthiessen took ayahuasca and wrote about jungle whorehouses. Lucas reveals that he grew up with a shrunken head from the Amazon in the living room.
In 1965, Peter published his breakthrough novel, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, a Lévi-Straussian spaghetti Western based on his own Amazonian wanderings. It received a National Book Award nomination, got made into a film with John Lithgow and Tom Berenger, and set the template for the rest of Peter’s career. And so, like Lewis Moon, the novel’s world-weary protagonist, who was “always on the road, like he was condemned to it,” the elder Matthiessen traveled. A lot.
Lucas doesn’t speculate much on what drove his father other than to say that he was “deeply competitive” and intended to be recognized as a “great man.” Although father and son would reconnect on the occasional duck hunt or Sunday walk, Peter’s “gaze was usually elsewhere, out into the distance.”
Perhaps in order to be noticed, Lucas developed “a lifelong tendency to court disaster,” nearly shooting his father’s head off on a hunting trip, becoming a drug dealer in college, and threatening his mother’s boyfriend with a Maasai spear. As his vision shrank to a pinhole, he continued to drive, terrorizing passengers. “Slow down, Luke, or you’ll kill us,” his father admonishes on one ride. (One can’t help but ask: why not take away the keys?) First Light conjures an image of parents so compromised by excess that they lacked almost any moral authority.
Of course, excess was a hallmark of the era. First Light isn’t as dishy as it could have been, but it does have a few memorable scenes, such as the night William Styron climbed on a coffee table and shouted, as Chubby Checker blared in the background, “All we do in this house is twist and fuck.”
Occasionally one wishes Lucas would go deeper. The Tall Young Men, as the Styron-Plimpton-Matthiessen set was known, weren’t just tokens of the Establishment; their parents and grandparents were literally diplomats and White House chiefs of protocol. According to Lucas, Peter, whose father was an architect and conservationist, remained enough of a patrician stiff that he “would never have allowed [Lucas and a girlfriend] to cohabitate.” Yet he gave his son acid. Did this cause cognitive dissonance?
Apparently not, according to Lucas, who says his father was nothing if not adept at compartmentalizing. “While the plight of brown-skinned peoples would remain a primary focus of [Peter’s] nonfiction, his friends were almost uniformly wealthy and white. Despite his conversion to Zen and dedication to being a voice for the marginalized victims of corporate greed, he would never stray too far from a kind of bohemian gentility.”
The book’s saddest moment occurs after Lucas stops drinking, finds his calling in social work, and becomes the parent he’d wished for: attentive, present, and boring, a father “who returned every night on the 6:23.” Walking home one evening, he hears a screech and realizes that a car has run over his eight-year-old son, Christopher. The next day, numb, he calls his own father to tell him that Christopher has died. Peter is traveling, so Lucas leaves a message on his answering machine.
The funeral that follows is one of the book’s many. Death, divorce, and addiction are unrelenting in First Light, and at times it feels as if Lucas thinks the audience too will stop noticing him if he stops courting disaster. The tone, meanwhile, is flat, as if a stern older figure were standing behind him as he composed, rebuking him for being demonstrative.
Peter remained enough of a patrician stiff that he “would never have allowed [Lucas and a girlfriend] to cohabitate.” Yet he gave his son acid.
The problem with this approach is that the book, like a reality show jump-cutting to a new angle every 2.5 seconds, rarely lingers long enough to develop a point of view. You wish the camera would stop moving and let you soak in the picture. There’s a curious, frustrating lack of interest in Peter’s writing as well. Peter is absent not just because he is always at a retreat or on a crusade but because his books—what he sacrificed his family life for—aren’t really present either. Maybe reading them was too painful for Lucas. Regardless, anyone hoping for a deeper understanding of the person who wrote them will be disappointed.
There is one revelation. Peter Matthiessen liked controversy—most of the time. But there was one uproar he wished would go away, which was being exposed as an employee of the C.I.A.
His involvement with the agency has been known for almost 50 years, yet his role remains mysterious. That’s partly because he lied about it compulsively, which is what people employed by intelligence services do. What seems certain is that at some point in the 1950s, while hanging out in Paris cafés, writing novels, and setting up The Paris Review, Peter did “a little work.”
But what exactly? Was he an agent running a network of confidential informants? Or was he an informer himself, snitching on Richard Wright and other dissident writers in the Paris expat community? Whatever it was, he preferred it not be disclosed. And it almost wasn’t.
But one night in 1977, Peter asked for a moment with his son in the living room of the family’s house in Sagaponack, Long Island. “The evening’s fire had almost burned out,” Lucas writes, “the last logs crumbling into ash as we moved to the sofa in the dim light of the Japanese lamps.” There, speaking with uncharacteristic hesitancy, Peter confessed “that the Paris Review had been started, at least in part, as a plausible cover for him.”
“The CIA just wasn’t as sinister back then as it is now,” he added.
A few weeks later, at a Christmas party in Plimpton’s apartment, Lucas repeated this to a stranger, “a man in his late thirties or early forties,” he writes. “Then I went home and passed out.”
The stranger was a reporter for The New York Times. The revelations in the article he wrote, Worldwide Propaganda Network Built by the C.I.A., did not immediately damage Peter. On the contrary, a year later he reached the pinnacle of his career, winning the National Book Award in two categories for The Snow Leopard. But for some reason he seemed to squirm every time it came up. Perhaps a biography set to be published next year will have the goods.
Why does Lucas resurface the story? As he says about an earlier transgression, an affair with one of Peter’s ex-girlfriends, “I knew I was sticking it to my father.” In the book it becomes a double transgression: the act itself and the telling of it. This is the overall sense left by First Light—that of a son still sticking it to his father, still trying to be noticed.
Ben Ryder Howe is a frequent contributor to the The New York Times and the author of My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store