127 of 130 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
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.
31 of 31 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
I stumbled upon the legend of Edgar "Bloody" 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 this 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.
The Smallwood Store & Museum didn't sell Matthiessen's books at the time (they do now), so I found a copy of "Killing Mr. Watson" at my local library. It was great, and I sought out the next book in the series immediately upon finishing it. That's when I discovered "Shadow Country", which is a one-volume "retelling" of the original Watson trilogy, and bought it instead.
The distilled, condensed, and rewritten origin of "Shadow Country" is mainly a strength - it varies by sections. Book one is based on "Killing Mr. Watson". The original was excellent, and this version is even better - well written, well paced, well-rounded characters, well polished to perfection.
This section has the same structure as the original stand-alone book on which its based. Various characters (mostly based on real people) from the Ten Thousand Islands tell Watson's story from their point of view and in their own varying voices. It's like reading transcripts of interviews from a very good documentary, which is not an easy form to pull off. Matthiessen is up to the task. Both Watson and the interviewees come to vivid life, and the deepening sense of doom rolls in like a crackling Florida thunderstorm. Despite knowing the basic story already from the original book, I could not put it down.
Book two, however, does not fare quite so well. I did not read the original book two ("Lost Man's River"), in which Watson's adult son tries to discover who his infamous father really was. However, this section feels highly condensed; a rushed bus tour of the original middle book of the trilogy. Years go by in a single paragraph; characters appear and disappear without having time to do much. Worst of all for an English teacher, the author often falls into telling the reader what's going on instead of showing as he did in book one. The prose slows down occasionally to that captivating rough, spare, and 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, I think that book two would have been better served with further cuts of sub-plots that are not given enough space to develop, allowing the narrative to focus on more effective and more important sections. And while it would require a change to the plot and/or real events, it would better serve as a link between books one and three if Watson's truth-seeking son would have somehow found his father's journal, which is the (fictional) source of book three.
Perhaps the biggest reason why the second section of "Shadow Country" is not as interesting as the first or third sections is that "Bloody" Watson himself does not make a (live) appearance. This problem is resoundingly corrected in book three, which is his long hinted-at memoir, written in powerful first person. The narrative goes back to his early childhood as this complex and always-surprising character tells his life story, explaining his violent past and stating his side of the events we'd heard in other voices earlier in the book. Watson is a gripping storyteller, and once his voice takes over, it doesn't let go until he's well and done with you... and his neighbors are done with him right where the book began, out behind Ted Smallwood's store. Riding shotgun (pardon the pun) with Edgar Watson is often shocking and sometimes uncomfortable, but it's one hell of an intense ride.
Overall, I highly recommend this book. The almost-true plot is fascinating, the characters (except for some in book two) are real and captivating, and the writing is generally as good as you'd expect when a master craftsman spends years on a labor of love. As someone who's personally explored southwest Florida, it's very impressive how Matthiessen profoundly captures the sense of the Ten Thousand Islands, an area that is still wild and isolated and just wants to be left alone. But for a more aggressive rewrite/edit of the middle section, "Shadow Country" might be the best literary novel I've ever read.