SHADOW COUNTRY by Peter Matthiessen

Book Quote:

“Some would say that Edgar Watson is a bad man by nature. Ed Watson is the man I was created. If I was created evil, somebody better hustle off to church, take it up with God. I don’t believe a man is born with a bad nature. I enjoy folks, most of ‘em. But it’s true I drink too much in my black moods, see only threats and enmity on every side. And in that darkness I strike too fast, and by the time I come clear, trouble has caught up with me again.”
~ Edgar J. Watson

Book Review:

Reviewed by Doug Bruns (JUL 20, 2009)

I’ve been concerned about reviewing this book from the get go. For starters, it is big at eight hundred and ninety-two pages. Getting one’s head around all those words is, plain and simple, challenging. And then there is the longevity involved, for lack of a better word. Matthiessen confesses at the outset that his first notes on the work, “to my horror date back to 1978.” That is a long time to invest in a project and the reviewer wants to do it justice. And there is the subject matter: Nothing less than a reckoning of the “last American frontier,” the turn of the century coast of southwest Florida, the Ten Thousand Islands, as reflected through the experience of a single, highly complex, enigmatic figure, Edgar J. Watson. Thrown in for good measure are themes of racism, corruption, expansionism, Reconstruction and Jim Crow, infidelity, alcoholism, sibling rivalry, political malfeasance, species extinction, ecological destruction, hurricanes, psychosis and obsession. Flavor the whole stew with more than a dash of violence and, well, you get the idea.

So, having laid bare my insecurities, I will proceed with trepidation.

The novel starts at the end, with the murder of Watson by a mob, later dubbed a posse. This is a common biographical device, starting with the subject’s death and then constructing the life leading up to it. This is fiction, however, though with a historical foundation. Watson existed. By starting in this manner, Matthiessen has done a couple of clever things. He has shaped a narrative which echos the discipline of biography. We know how the story ends. This feels right, and lends instant credibility to the pages that follow. Secondly, he has defused a tension at the outset which might otherwise drive the narrative in an unintended direction. The reader doesn’t have to wonder what happens. Instead, the reader wonders why it happened and thus enters a flow of narration which ebbs and rises like the tides upon which the story largely centers. Immediately following this bloody opening–Watson is pumped with 33 bullets–we experience a literary technique which I think is unique and, at times, brilliant.

Specifically, the novel consists of three “books.” Book One is comprised of 51 first-person renderings. There are 14 different voices, each accounting for a different perspective, each sharing how the narrator’s life intersected with the life of Watson. I want to plainly state, “Book One” affords us a literary experience that is first rate. The voices, rendered in personal style and manner, filled with colloquialisms and individual tone, sing. It is obvious that Matthiessen has a wonderful ear for nuance and dialogue. For example here is Frank Tippin, sheriff, describing Eddie Watson, son of E.J. Watson: “In his reddish looks, Eddie took after his dad, with the same kind of husky mulishness about him; what was missing was the fire in his color. He put me in mind of a strong tree dead at the heart.” Or this account by neighbor Owen Harden describing the look of dead Bet Tucker, who was murdered mysteriously on a parcel of Watson land: “Without no lips, her white buck teeth made her look starved as a dead pony. Only mercy was, no eyes was left to stare.” It is virtuosic, this ability to render so many voices so accurately.

With each of the 51 accounts a different puzzle piece is laid on the table and our story unfolds. Some of these accounts are by people who hate Watson. Some love him. Others proclaimed him simply an unsolvable mystery. We learn that Watson, as a farmer, is talented beyond comparison. But also, incongruently, he is a deadeye shot with a revolver. We discover he is a loving father and gentlemanly in his manner; yet, through the intervention of powerful friends, he beat a murder rap while traveling in the north. Each voice lays down a perspective of Watson so that what remains is a tantalizing portrait of ambiguity. There is a Watson genealogy included at the outset of the book and I found myself referring to it regularly as I attempted to keep pace with cast of characters. There is no such guide for the neighbors, towns people, freed black men, mistresses and cohorts, however–and they are abundant, which can be very confusing, particularly since many go by nicknames. By the end of this section you get a sense of the picture that has been parsed out to you, but it is not cohesive by design and the picture in the puzzle can only be approximated.

Book Two grows somewhat problematic. The technique of book one is abandoned and an omniscient narrator takes over to relate the quest of favored son Lucius and his attempt to write the biography of his father. I fear the wonderful voices of the previous section leave us and are replaced by a dogged flat style. Here is part of the prospective biography, as Lucius pitches it to a publisher (the italics are his):

“This bold energetic man of rare intelligence and enterprise must also be understood as a man undone by his own deep flaws. He was known to drink to grievous excess, for example, which often turned him volatile and violent. On the other hand, his evil repute has been wildly exaggerated by careless journalists and their local informants, who seek to embellish their limited acquaintance with a “desperado”; with the result that the real man has been virtually entombed by tale and legend which since his death has petrified as myth.”

Matthiessen writes in an author’s note, “..the middle section, which had served originally as a kind of connecting tissue, yet contained much of the heart and brain of the whole organism, lacked its own armature or bony skeleton.” I should say at this point that the three sections were previously published independently. The author, however, never felt they worked as a trilogy and took to revising them and stitching them together whole cloth, a task that took eight years. Unfortunately, the middle section still lacks the sparkle of the sections before and after. That said, it does help us bring our puzzle into focus, locking together many of the pieces which were randomly laid out in the first section.

The final section, Book Three, takes up the voice of our anti-hero, E.J. Watson. Returning to a first-person technique, Watson gets to tell his story. And here we start to understand all that has preceded. The temptation is to believe we now understand everything. But how can we understand a voice which is, by all accounts, including his own, filled with duplicity and layered in mystery? I was never sure if Matthiessen wanted the reader to draw conclusions from Watson’s personal account or if he left the door open for suspicion. I didn’t find this device convincing, in other words. The third section, however, does afford the reader the complete linear picture. It is here we have the only cohesive account of the events in this life, however clouded and self-serving they may delivered. It is also the place where Watson’s shadow self, an “alien presence” is first revealed, affording us some insight into the conundrum of Edgar Watson. While suffering a beating at the hands of his father, the young Edgar realized the “first manifestation of ‘Jack Watson,’ a shadow brother.” He confesses to inventing this sibling to deal with the pain and trauma of abuse. This shadow being explains the “crazy eyes” we’ve heard tell of evidenced during times of violence in the mature Watson. It also lends us insight into the title, as shadows permeate the landscape as well as the personality.

If I have belabored the mechanics of this novel it is because the novel is built upon a unique and multifaceted structure and is more solid because of it. It, the structure, warrants description. If that structure creeks and moans occasionally under its own weight, it is of no consequence. Matthiessen is clearly obsessed with Watson and is attempting to convey a kaleidoscopic sense of the character and the times in which he lived. He delivers to us his subject in all facets and from all angles. It is as if Ishmael, the crew of the Pequod, and Ahab himself were each to relate their singular version of ambition, obsession and destruction, as well as whale hunting.

Imagine what you know of the great American West, the drive across the plains and the development and commerce that followed. Or Imagine the early Northeast, the pilgrims, the witch hunts, The Last of the Mohicans. If you are like me, this geography of the imagination is easily rendered. So too are the Texas territories, or the Mississippi (thanks to Twain, who’s voice and influence is evident here), or Jamestown, Williamsburg. But what of the last of the unknown territories, the last place where a “desperado” could hide, and not only hide but flourish, provided he had the sand? Can you conjure up such a pace? Perhaps it is an educational gap, of which I confess to too many, but I never considered Florida historically, short of Ponce de Leon. Now, imagine dropping into that gap a clever man of unabashed ambition and nerve, labor and resources aplenty, guns and knives with which to carry out a personal vision. Imagine too an absence of law and an abundance of whisky. This man would live here, on the Ten Thousand Islands, amid the mosquitos and crocs and snakes, off the coast of Florida, for two decades. He would turn 35 acres into a sugar cane factory, spawning an industry. He would love his wife and pay his bills on time. He would read history of ancient Greece and morn the loss of loved ones. Yet, one day he would be gunned down by his neighbors. They claimed he was a murderer who would kill his workers before payday, a man who had escaped the law in the north and the west. No one would be arraigned or tried for his murder. And the land he worked and was tied to would later become part of the Everglades park system.

If you can hold that image for simply a second you will have an inkling of the wonders at work in this novel.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 100 readers
PUBLISHER: Modern Library (December 2, 2008)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Peter Matthiessen
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another Southern “Western” fiction”

Other fiction set in 1000 Islands/Everglades:

Bibliography:

Fiction:

Selected Non-Fiction:


July 20, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, Florida, National Book Award Winner, Wild West, y Award Winning Author

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