I never was able to shake the feeling that there was something missing in this novel. Maybe it was a soul or heart that it lacked? Hard to say because it was, at times, quite beautiful, and the ending was very well done, but I felt empty after I was done with the book.
One of the biggest problems I had with the book was that the characters felt very thin. Even Moon, who was written as a ‘complicated man’ never jumped off of the page and no amount of discussion between Wolf and Andy at the end about his mysteriousness was going to change that. And Moon was probably the biggest issue I had here; he seemed just too damn convenient as a character. His Plains Indian background never felt like more than an excuse to talk about how bad the native peoples of the Americas have been treated and how poorly we ever understood their cultures.
I would have been much more interested had the book been about his back story only.
I did, however, like Wolf, though I have to admit to always imagining him in my mind as played by Tom Waits from the film. Still, he was the only real character in the book and I really felt for him. He really was a very lonely man who acted tough (and could be tough, too) but he loved the people he let in.
Hazel would have been a great character, too but she was a serious missed opportunity. I could almost feel Matthiessen’s hatred and judgment of a certain type of American mid-western Christian woman. She got off to a great start and seemed like she was going to be worth exploring, but she nearly ruined the entire book. The only thing I enjoyed her doing was when she hated her husband for being so good, for being so much like Jesus. That was a great thing for a missionary to say.
As for everyone else: Martin was painfully dull and boring, Leslie was thinner than water, and while Andy had the most potential, she never went anywhere. Even Matthiessen just leaves her sitting at a table staring into nothing at the end. Uyuyu, I’ll admit was rather good, but he wasn’t used enough and Father Xantes was just never tied down to anything I felt was relevant beyond an allegory for the Catholic Church in this part of the world.
The novel is well written and some passages are very beautiful – the opening scene of the airplane is stunning – but it never adds up to much more than a story that is supposed to be sad but just winds up being sort of flat.
And it’s a shame, too because there was a real opportunity to explore some very interesting ideas, but perhaps this is material only Joseph Conrad would have known what to do with. And this novel does feel very often as if Conrad is standing over Matthiessen as he wrote it – the subject matter, the rough men as outlaws, the (sometimes here) very beautiful language, though Matthiessen’s language never reaches the same depth as Conrad; he’s no master wordsmith, but rather just a good putter-togetherer-of-words.
In the end I do not feel as if I learned anything insightful about Christian missionaries, about native Amazon Indians, about South American politics (the parallel story of Guzman reads like a bad Hollywood movie), nor about the larger issues of faith and acceptance. I felt like we never really left that plane in the beginning and we only ever saw glimpses through the jungle canopy.