‘I was so angry,’ Peter Matthiessen said late in his life of his early days as a writer. ‘I was constantly in a contest … with my father.’ He’d grown up rich in Connecticut and New York, attended Yale, but found himself in ‘combat with the world’ for reasons he couldn’t understand; his early novels reflect this. In Race Rock (1954), a young man quits his father’s Wall Street firm and retreats to the family’s New England home, where he wanders aimlessly before taking part in a drunken game of Russian roulette that kills a childhood friend. In Partisans (1955), the son of a US diplomat also resists entering the family trade, under the sway of what’s called in the book only ‘the Party’, and sets off to track down a hero from the Spanish Civil War who’s gone into hiding. Matthiessen’s filial ambivalence may have been complicated by the fact that he’d joined the CIA, where his main job was spying on potential members of the Communist Party among literary expatriates in France. In 1953, he’d founded the Paris Review in part as a front for that work, a detail he kept from George Plimpton for years. His third novel, Raditzer (1961), depicts yet another young man of means resisting paternal influence: Charles Stark foregoes joining his father’s law firm to enlist in the navy just as the war is ending. Shipping out to the Pacific, he falls under the inexplicable sway of the title character, a social outcast worthy of Camus.
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