118 of 120 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.
26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
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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 headed down 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 that 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 book there (for reasons now clear), 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 interesting ride.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed 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.