Beer with Peter

In the spell of a great storyteller

By Brian Doyle | July 3, 2015
Anders Adermark/Flickr
Anders Adermark/Flickr


Twice in this life I had a beer with the great wry complicated writer, mystic, and adventurer Peter Matthiessen, and both times we ended up having more than one beer, and both times Peter ended up telling me one story after another with great high glee, and both times he finally said, Well, I had better get going, beer on me next time. But then Peter went and died, a year ago in April, and every couple of weeks or so, when I see his name, or see a face as craggy and ravined and humorous and weathered and amused as his, I think of his tall stooped lean grace, his lovely prose, and the fact that he owes me something like six beers, which I am never going to get in this lifetime, but hope to get later, if I have a chance to sit down with Peter again, and listen to him tell me stories with great high glee.

At dinner once with two other guests, I heard Peter explain quite seriously how he was convinced he was the direct descendant of Matthias, the 13th apostle, the one who was elected after Judas Iscariot came to an untimely end; and another time, at a dinner with 50 other guests, I heard him tell haunting stories of his recent visits to Auschwitz. But the times I sat and drank beer with him in Oregon, and we laughed ourselves silly, stay with me as the best times I had with Peter, and I would like to take a moment and remember those times.

He had joined the Navy in 1945, and been assigned to Hawaii, and being a bright and unprincipled young man, Peter set up a system whereby he could sell passes for the use of motor vehicles, which was not a practice approved by the Navy, although the Navy, he said, did not know about it, and perhaps still does not know about it, until now. He also set up baseball leagues for Navy personnel in Hawaii, he said, and when I asked if he had made money from that too he said no, although he had certainly thought about it, but the only way he could see to profit would be to promote cheating, and it would be a low sort of man who would cheat at baseball. He talked about his travels in Nepal and Africa and Latin America and the Antarctic; he talked about his travels in Indian Country, as he called the vast poor brave rough sad ancient lands on which so many aboriginal Americans live today; he talked about being a commercial fisherman off Long Island, which was called Paumonok by the first peoples there, he noted, and ought to be called Paumonok again, rather than Long Island, which is a remarkably unimaginative label for such a lovely place. He talked about being a Buddhist, and about his days in Paris after the war, and about his hundreds and perhaps thousands of friends among the writers and photographers and painters and poets and mystics and adventurers of the world, which is, as he said, pretty much everyone, don’t you think?

He talked about his beer belly, what there was of it, which he thought every man of sense ought to have, after age 60 or so, or else perhaps you have been too abstemious, too penurious, too fearful of joy, as he said. He talked about his predilection for vests, which he loved because of their plethora of pockets, in which you could put fishing ephemera and good pens and small notebooks and cool feathers, such as the owl feather he had the second time we met for beer.

He was a wonderful talker, a raconteur, funny and observant and memorious, and he had the great talker’s gift of pausing occasionally and asking you questions and listening intently to you, so that your time would seem conversational, though it was much more a great storyteller patient with and amused by an apprentice storyteller; and most of all, I think, he was liable to humor, and humble enough, despite a healthy ego and sense of himself, to know very well that humor is the final frontier, that humor has something crucially to do with humility, and that humility is very probably the one inarguable mark of maturity, and whatever it is we mean when we use the word wisdom.

I suspect Peter had many travails and shadows in his life, most of them probably caused by or abetted by himself; I remember flashes and intimations of sadness in his talk, in his extraordinary mountainside of a face; but I will remember best and most his liability to humor, and the fact that he owes me something like six beers, which I very much hope to sip, somehow, someday, while listening to the direct descendant of the Apostle Matthias. Rest in peace, Peter; rest in the knowledge that many people remember you with affection and respect and laughter, and that millions more will read your books for centuries to come, and so meet you for themselves; perhaps, happily, while sipping beer.

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