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Wrangling a New Reality

Tue, 04/25/2023 - 18:52
Lucas Matthiessen
Jonathan Becker

“First Light” 
Lucas Matthiessen
Arcade, $26.99

The opening scene of Lucas Matthiessen's memoir, "First Light," is harrowing: "The light pierced my skull in a silent explosion. I let out a muffled groan but could do nothing to escape the pain. Fully dilated, my eye offered no defense, and his large hand pinned me to the headrest. My breathing quickened and tears began to stream down my cheek, but I made no further sound as the light continued to pummel my brain."

The doctor ordered his staff, seven in all, to conduct the same excruciatingly painful examinations, one after the other. 

Twenty-year-old Lucas Matthiessen had developed tunnel vision — unable to see peripherally, often unable to locate objects in space. Dr. Eliot Berson announced that Matthiessen had retinitis pigmentosa. Too much pigment in the retina was killing the rod and cone cells. Soon Matthiessen would develop night blindness and by around the age of 35 the young man would lose all of this operative vision in his eyes. 

The doctor asked about family history. Two of Matthiessen's first cousins were losing their sight — they had inherited the X-linked retinitis pigmentosa gene from his mother's sister as well.

His mother and his sister sat in the corner. Dr. Berson turned on his 19-year-old sister: "I'm fairly sure you are a carrier," he told Carey. She and her mother began to sob. "We were defenseless against him, overwhelmed by the brutality of his scientific certainty," Matthiessen writes. Dr. Berson wasn't done. He asked the young man if he drove. Matthiessen said yes. Dr. Berson told him to stop immediately. Then he asked what Matthiessen planned to do for a living. "I'm an English major," Matthiessen replied. "I hope to become a writer."

The doctor's reply? "I'm not sure that would be the best choice for you."

Had the doctor never heard of Homer? Milton? 

Just a few years before in the 1960s, young Matthiessen had been riding to Sagaponack with his father, Peter Matthiessen, after a day of clamming near Sag Harbor, when his father announced: "I have a vision of a grand threesome of Matthiessen writers." Peter, who had by then already co-founded The Paris Review, had written "Wildlife in America," a history of extermination of species because of human involvement, as well as a novel, "At Play in the Fields of the Lord." One of his father's cousins had been F.O. Matthiessen, a scholar and writer of the American Renaissance. Young Matthiessen had taken the weight of his father's pronouncement seriously.

But Dr. Eliot Berson was Nurse Ratched on autocratic steroids. "Dr. Berson would later receive a letter, signed by hundreds of his patients, expressing their collective distress over his lack of empathy." Matthiessen writes that he wouldn't have signed the letter. He had to put his trust in a man who might find a cure.

That night Lucas ruminated over the fact that nearly everything he loved required vision. He listed driving, playing tennis, looking at women, reading, as he polished off a quarter gallon of vodka. Straight.

He did well in Columbia's undergrad English program, working with the eminent critic Lionel Trilling, who, in fact, filled Lucas in regarding the reality of his grandfather's cousin, F.O. Apparently F.O. had grown despondent around 1950 over the fact that world socialism was not a possibility. Peter, his son would learn, was an ardent admirer of Cesar Chavez.

It doesn't take a Venn diagram to realize that Lucas was witnessing an extraordinary literary and art world explosion as he grew up on the East End, in Springs, East Hampton, Sag Harbor, Sagaponack. Between his father and his mother. Indeed his mother, Patsy Southgate, a writer and translator who had, with her fierce wit, inspired so many in Paris in the 1950s. Her coterie included James Baldwin, William Styron, Terry Southern, and, back in Springs, her best friend, Frank O'Hara. 

In anyone else's memoir these sentences would sound like name-dropping, but in Lucas's world the concern is more about offending those who might be left off the list. Willem de Kooning, grumpy on his bicycle. Truman Capote careening around in his Mustang. The cast of characters included John Irving, William Gaddis, E.L. Doctorow, James Jones, James Salter, John Ashbery, Jackson Pollock, Larry Rivers, Lukas Foss. 

Of course as a young man in the freewheeling '60s and '70s there were a number of surprising events. On a hot summer day Lucas played two sets of tennis with "Bumpy" Rogers, a family "friend." Bumpy invited him over for drinks afterward, then she went to freshen up. After he had taken a few sips of his gin and tonic, she emerged from the bathroom . . . starkers. Shades of Mrs. Robinson. Only more complex. Bumpy had been his father's girlfriend for several months after the death of Peter's second wife, Deborah.

Throughout this book we see how Lucas wrangled with his eventual reality — the profound changes he knew were coming in his life. As his vision worsened, he drank increasing amounts of hard liquor. Rarely skipping a day. Or a night. Despite the fact that he'd become an editor, first at The Paris Review, later Quest magazine, and then Penguin Books. During those years he wouldn't use a white cane to alert others as to what was going on. He took the subways, bumping into people, thrusting himself into every physical reality.

During the second half of his life Lucas left editorial work. Sobered up. Obtained his master's degree in social work from New York University. He trained with guide dogs. And, importantly, he counseled people who were losing their vision or who were going through difficult times. The man who avoided admitting loss of sight served on the board of directors of the Guide Dog Foundation. Gosh, did he love that dog, Goose.

He continued to challenge himself: Galloping on horseback, riding on a tandem bicycle, swimming in the Atlantic waves. 

One of the most moving scenes in the book: Sept. 11, 2001. When Lucas's son Joe told his father that they had to do something. "On September 16th, 2001, Joe and I emerged from the subway at Canal Street and stood before a line of police. Holding my cane in one hand and Joe's elbow in the other, I squinted against the glare, which still pained my sightless eyes." Father and son were driven to the Javits Center, where they made up endless care packages for E.M.T.s and police. What was important was to be present.

Lucas Matthiessen died in August of metastatic cancer in hospice — not long after he'd completed the manuscript of "First Light." But even in ill health, he'd made sure to acknowledge, first, his stepmother, Maria Matthiessen, his father's widow, as well as his dear friend Jed Horne, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and editor, both for "guidance and encouragement." Claire de Brunner, his wife of nearly 12 years, whom he'd met years before in A.A., read and commented on his work, and throughout these pages he conveys his deep gratitude to her.  

Matthiessen ends his memoir recollecting what someone dear to him always recited as he was leaving any place at all, a line from W.H. Auden's "Atlantis": "Stagger onward, rejoicing."

Lou Ann Walker, a professor in Stony Brook University's creative writing and literature program, is executive editor of the literary journal TSR: The Southampton Review. She lives in Sag Harbor.

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