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Shadow Country Hardcover – Deckle Edge, Apr 8 2008

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From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Matthiessen's Watson trilogy is a touchstone of modern American literature, and yet, as the author writes in a foreword of this reworking, with the publication of Killing Mister Watson, Lost Man's River and Bone by Bone, he felt, after twenty years of toil... frustrated and dissatisfied. So after six or seven years of re-creation—rewriting many passages, compressing the timeline, shortening the work by some 400 pages and fleshing out supporting cast members (notably black farmhand Henry Short)—the three books are in one volume for the first time, and the result is remarkable. Florida sugarcane farmer and infamous murderer—the latter bit according to legend, of course—Edgar J. Watson is brought to life through marvelous eyewitness accounts and journal entries from friends, family and enemies alike. Book One (formerly Killing Mister Watson) creates a vivid portrait of the untamed southwest Florida of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and recounts Watson's life—with questionable accuracy—beginning with his arrival in south Florida and replaying key events leading up to his being gunned down in the swamps. Watson, who stands accused of murdering a young couple who won't leave his land, is roundly despised and feared, so much so that parents frighten their children into obedience by threatening a visit from Watson. The second book takes place several decades after Watson's murder and relates the travails of Watson's son, Lucius, now a WWI veteran and scholar, as he tries to write a true account of his father's life. Lucius journeys back to his childhood home in search of answers from the same people who saw his father killed. As he investigates the contradictory claims and rumors (like that of a Watson Pay Day, when Watson would murder his farmhands rather than pay them), he tracks down his long-lost brother, Robert, and learns a horrible family secret. The final piece is perhaps the best, taking the form of Watson's chilling memoir. Recounting his life, from the years of paternal abuse right up until his jaw-dropping perspective on the day of his death, Watson reveals his strained relationship with his children, a personality crisis with his scabrous alter ego and the truth behind the many myths. Where Watson was a magnificent character before, he comes across as nothing short of iconic here; it's difficult to find another figure in American literature so thoroughly and convincingly portrayed. When Watson delivers his final line, it's as close as most will come to witnessing a murder. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


'The fiction of Peter Matthiessen is the reason a lot of people in my generation decided to be writers ... Shadow Country lives up to anyone's expectations of great writing' Richard Ford. 'Altogether gripping, shocking, and brilliantly told ... as powerful a reading experience as nearly any in our literature' Michael Dirda, New York Review of Books. 'It's the story of our continent, both land and people, and his writing does every justice to the blood fury of his themes' Don Delillo. 'After seven years of rewriting and reimaging his 'Mister Watson' trilogy, Peter Matthiessen has produced an epic novel of the Florida Everglades, Shadow Country, a book that can be fairly spoken of in the same breath as Moby-Dick and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for both the grandeur of its literary architecture and its command of American vernacular speech' Jonathan Raban, Guardian. 'Shadow Country's size and scope may throw down a challenge, but anyone who takes it up will only be rewarded. If this isn't a great novel, American or otherwise, I don't know what is' Jonathan Gibbs, Independent. 'I read it in great gulps, up later each night than I wanted to be, in my hungry impatience to find out more' Joseph Heller. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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125 of 128 people found the following review helpful
A Magnificent Obsession Jan. 4 2009
By DC Churbuck - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
For nearly twenty years I've been obsessed by Edgar Watson, the Everglades Planter known as "Bloody Watson" and "Emperor Watson" for the 50-odd murders attributed to him by a century of legend and myth.

Peter Matthiessen was way more obsessed than me, writing four novels about Watson. I read the first in 1990. The last just this past December. It, Shadow Country, won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2008. It is Matthiessen's masterpiece, and I have no qualms saying it is among the top novels in all of American literature, a book I would stack against Moby Dick, Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Gravity's Rainbow, White Noise ....

Matthiessen does several important things that won my admiration. First, his voice, his writing, is a very spare, zen language that is short on embellishment but poetic in its nature. Second, the structure that he brings to the narrative is very inventive. The first part of the novel is the tale of Watson's death at the hands of more than two dozen of his neighbors who gun him down after a hurricane in the fall of 1910, hitting him with 33 bullets. That part, which formed the basis of Killing Mister Watson, is an succession of reminiscences by those on that Chokoloskee beach, a backwater Rashomon that bring some amazing vernacular, history, and drama. The book starts with the killing -- and what follows is an utter mind-twister of why Watson was killed.

The second part of the novel is the story of one of Watson's sons, Lucius, who tries to reassemble the facts and seperate them from the myths about his father, who, among other legends, was the reputed murderer of outlaw queen Belle Starr. Lucius compiles a list of those on that beach, a list which makes him a very suspicious figure to the survivors and their descendants, back-water plume and gator poachers who would prefer that Lucius not be asking so many questions. The detective work, the sheer genealogical complexity of Lucius' quest is a reminder to the reader -- this is a true story. Matthiessen's research and attention to detail would shame a historian.

And finally, the true masterpiece in the three tales is the first person account by Watson himself, a story that begins with his childhood in the post-Civil War Reconstruction of South Carolina (in the most violent county of the state), and his subsequent abuse at the hands of a drunken white trash father, his flight to north Florida and from there a descent into the American frontier, and Watson's lonely home on Chatham Bend, the only house between Chokoloskee and Key West, literally the end of America.

Read it. Matthiessen won my respect decades ago with Far Tortuga, The Snow Leopard, Men's Lives, but Shadow Country is my candidate for the Great American Novel.
37 of 37 people found the following review helpful
Worth every Hour Spent Dec 20 2008
By Richard Pittman - Published on
Format: Paperback
I purchased this book simply because it won the National Book Award. I was very daunted by the pure size of the novel. I approached it like I would approach eating broccoli. It was something that I might not necessarily enjoy but would be good for me.

Once I passed the first 30 pages or so, I looked forward to reading it every day. What a superb study of character, perception, point of view, American history, the environment, Florida etc.

This is such a meaty, worthwhile piece of writing. I truly loved every minute of my time with this book and was sorry when it ended.

It is structured in 3 parts.

Book I tells the story of EJ Watson who was killed by his neighbours in SW Florida in 1910. It gives his story from multiple points of view and many of the narrators are the ones that killed him. Their perceptions of him are based on some truth and many rumours. He appeared to be quite a villain who they rightly ridded the world of.

Book II is from the perspective of his son Lucius who becomes obsessed with the legend of his dead father and is hopeful that the many murders attributed to "Bloody" Watson are untrue. He meets resistance and many people don't want the past dredged up.

The third book is from EJ Watson's point of view and it is the perfect conclusion. We learn a lot more about what really happened though we are conscious that Watson himself may not always admit everything. Watson does do many bad things but of course his reputation causes many things to be blamed on him that he did not do. Although there are murders, Watson really sees himself as someone who tried to do good.

I found this to be one of the most complete and fascinating character studies I've ever read. The character is compelling and discovering the truth piece by piece was truly enjoyable.

This was originally a 1500 page book that the publisher released as three separate novels. Matthiessen was never happy with this being a trilogy and spent several years bringing it to a single 900 page volume. I have not read the original 3 novels and understand that some readers clearly believe the 1500 page version is superior. I certainly found this rendering to be a superior piece of literature though can't comment on it compared to the original.

I can't recommend this book highly enough.
98 of 107 people found the following review helpful
Matthiessen does it again! July 15 2008
By David P. Kelly - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Shadow Country (Modern Library)

I wondered why I should read another 900 pages of the Mr Watson saga. After all, I'd already ready the previous Watson books. But since i am a huge Peter Matthiessen fan I bought the book anyway. Time and money well spent, this is another masterpiece. He takes the reader so deep into the Florida backcountry of yesterday that you, like me, will probably catch yourself thinking in cracker dialect. I know how the story ends but read on in awe anyway. If you like brilliant dialog, well-drawn characters, often tragically flawed, an exotic setting, so near and far from today's Florida, read this book. I loved it!
30 of 30 people found the following review helpful
Excellent, but the third time would be the charm. July 27 2009
By Steve - Published on
Format: Paperback
I stumbled upon the legend of Edgar A. "Jack" Watson completely by chance. Looking at maps of my home state, I'd always noticed Everglades City hanging on to the bottom of Florida's Gulf coast like a shipwreck survivor holding on to a rescue line. So when the family paid a visit to Everglades National Park last June, we took a side trip down there, and then continued on south to the very end of the road: the island of Chokoloskee.

Ted Smallwood's store still stands on the southwest corner of the southwest corner of Florida. It's a museum now, with the merchandise kept just the way it was when it finally closed as a working general store in the 1950s. There's an unsettlingly lifelike mannequin of ol' Ted himself, sitting in his rocking chair, forever holding his flyswatter. And there's a sign near the back porch mentioning that, as told in the book "Killing Mister Watson", Edgar Watson was shot dead by his neighbors right outside where the gentle waves lap upon the mud and mangroves.

They didn't sell the books there at the time (they had copies for sale on a later visit), so I found a copy at my local library. Once hungrily devoured, I sought out the next two volumes of Matthiessen's Watson trilogy. Then I discovered this "new retelling" and bought it instead.

The distilled, condensed, and rewritten origin of "Shadow Country" is both a strength and a weakness - it varies by sections. Book I is based on "Killing Mr. Watson". I enjoyed this version more than the original. It was good to begin with - well written, well paced, well-rounded characters, etc. But the new version is better, polished and worn to perfection.

The form here is the same as in the older book. It's a bit like reading the transcript of a Ken Burns documentary, with various people who knew Watson taking turns propelling the narrative along from a different point of view. It takes great skill to pull this off, and Matthiessen is up to the task, the deepening sense of doom rolling in like a crackling Florida thunderstorm. Despite knowing the story already, I could not put it down.

Book II, however, does not fare so well. I did not read the original version. However, it's obvious that this portion of "Shadow Country" is highly condensed; a rushed bus tour of that earlier work, careening through the story far too quickly. Years go by in a single paragraph; characters appear and disappear without having time to say their piece; and, worst of all for an English teacher, the author often falls into telling the reader what's going on as opposed to showing. Occasionally, the prose slows down and returns to that captivating rough & poetic style that graced the first section, only to speed away without warning to the next well-crafted scene, a journey which might take several pages and months of story time.

Counter-intuitively, book II probably would probably be stronger it had been whittled down a lot more, cutting out sub-plots and events that are given far too little attention here to merit inclusion and focusing on the more effective sections. And while it would require a change to the plot and/or real events, it would better serve as a link between books I and III if Watson's truth-seeking son would have somehow found his father's journal.

Another reason that the middle section pales in comparison to its bookends is that E.J. "Bloody" Watson, the fascinating focus of the whole saga, does not make a (live) appearance. That problem is resoundingly corrected in Book III, which is his long-hinted at memoir. The writing picks up again as this incredibly complex and well-imagined character takes over and doesn't let go until he's well and done with you (and his neighbors are done with him). Riding shotgun (pardon the pun) with Edgar Watson is often shocking and sometimes uncomfortable, but it's a hell of an intense ride.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. The plot is gripping, the characters (except for some in book II) are real and captivating, and Matthiessen fully captures the sense of the Ten Thousand Islands, an area that is still quiet and isolated and just wants to be left alone. But for a more aggressive edit of the middle section, it might be the best literary novel I've ever read.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
An American Epic of a Brutal Man and Place Dec 30 2009
By Douglas S. Wood - Published on
Format: Paperback
Shadow Country is Peter Matthiessen's reworked rendering of his earlier trilogy of historical fiction relating the life of the brutal Florida pioneer Edgar J. Watson. (This version still consists of three "books" and runs to almost 900 pages. I did not read the earlier version and so cannot offer comparisons between the two.)

Shadow Country is almost entirely set in the 1890's and early 1900's in a frontier region not widely known - the Ten Thousand Islands of south Gulf Coast Florida (the Everglades area). The area was absurdly remote at the time and presented such daunting challenges and dangers to any settlers that it was in fact nearly unsettled. And nearly all who did settle there were running or hiding from something, such as the law or deserted family members. Or they were just deeply anti-social. Aside from its remoteness, the area had almost nothing to recommend itself (I usually the qualified `almost nothing' in the vent that I think of some redeeming feature). It is brutally hot and humid, resistant to agriculture, possessed of dangerous animals (on sea and land), prone to calamitous storms, infested with mosquitoes, and inhabited by a large proportion of suddenly violent men as well as sociopathic criminals. This is the place Edgar J. Watson chooses to live.

Within the first ten pages of Book One, the reader confronts this sentence: "Oh Lord God," she cries. "They are killing Mr. Watson!" (Killing off the main character in the opening pages of a 900-page work of fiction proves Matthiessen is either brave or foolish.) The story is told with a dozen different narrators recalling Watson's arrival and life in the islands. Matthiessen's remarkable ability to produce so many distinctive voices makes this book incredibly readable. These people can all tell a story (they are in good practice life on the islands providing so much idle time). Matthiessen does not, however, make them all tell the same story; differences of viewpoint produce a fascinating ambiguity.

That Watson is an exceptional man is undoubted. Beginning with nothing, he manages to set himself up as a power to be reckoned with. He is also grandiose, violent, and merciless. But is he a murderer (several times over)? Opinions vary. He drinks too much. He loses what he has and what he wants and what he values. It is a hard life in a hard place. Edgar Watson was a hard man in dire need of some education and civilization, neither of which could be found in any quantity in the islands.

Book Two traces the story of Lucius Watson's "obsessive quest for the truth about his father" (NYT Review). It is the 1920's and Lucius is writing a history of his father's life (he has a doctorate in history), traveling to courthouse archives and interviewing long-forgotten family members. But he also has "the list" of the armed men who gunned down the elder Watson. The list naturally makes people nervous and some of them are quite dangerous. Book Two reveals some fascinating history, including the mostly unsavory operation of the law in south Florida, such as sheriff's renting the labor of black inmates to business interests (and pocketing much of the money). For more on that practice see Douglas Blackmon's stunning new history Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.

Book Three presents Edgar himself as the narrator of his life story from a child in South Carolina to various stopping places in Florida, Arkansas, and finally the Thousand Islands. The brutality of his childhood, the ready violence of white men toward blacks and of his own father toward him, makes Edgar's later actions more understandable person, if not justified. He develops a rigid personal code that demands recompense in full for any slight. He attempts a justification that reveals some complexity and contradictions, but falls short of the mark.

Shadow Country is an American epic of a mysterious historical character (yes, Edgar Watson really lived and died in the islands). The writing is at times exquisite. The story it tells is often brutal or just about plain hard life. The writing is compelling, the reading can be draining.