Saturday, January 09, 2010

Shadow Country (Killing Mr. Watson) by Peter Matthiessen
Killing Mr. Watson is the first book of a trilogy which are collected in this version as Shadow Country. Matthiessen has rendered a compelling vision of the landscape of the lawless Florida Everglades at the turn of the century. Almost every detail of the hard lives of the settlers, seminole, and the criminals who make up the region’s cane farms and villages feels authentic. The narritave is brooding and piecemeal. Each chapter is written from the perspective of someone who had a personal relationship with the Watson family, or was present on the day of the lynch mob execution of Edgar J. Watson. This collection of voices creates a patina of tales which taken together give a shadowed, murky picture of Watson’s life and his ultimate death. The language is precise is a bit florid when describing the natural beauty of the region. Matthiessen’s ear for dialect is superb. He tackles themes of mythmaking, the American deification of the outlaw, mob justice, and the lawlessness of a frontier which is very different than the dusty west, but still unquestionably American.

The first book of Shadow Country is compelling, and surprisingly easy to read given its daunting heft.

Shadow Country (Bony By Bone) by Peter Matthiessen
The second novel in Matthiessen’s epic saga of Ed Watson and the Florida Keys is more personal and self aware than the first. It tells the tale of poor lost Lucius Watson, son of the notorious, now legendary “Bloody Watson.” After his father’s Lucius goes to war, goes to the university of Florida and nearly gets his doctoral degree in the history of Florida. He drops out ABD (as many do!) and sinks deep into drink and an obsession with the past. He tries to dig up the “truth” of what happened to his father and learns a Faulknarian lesson about how shallow a grave the past lies in.

The writing is better than in Killing Mr. Watson and the tale is sadder. Lucius is never able to live a life of his own, giving up everything in a misguided attempt to seek out a truth that is mired in local legend, loss and sorrow.

Shadow Country (Lost Man’s River) by Peter Matthiessen
The third book of Watson’s saga and Matthiessen’s opus is an incredible payoff for the six hundred or so dense pages of slog that it took to get here. In this final installation we get to learn what really happened or at least what Ed Watson tells us happened. From his tragic boyhood in the deep south during the worst days of Jim Crow down to his fateful final day on the banks of Lost Man’s Key, Watson tells us of his life, his drive for the American notion of “progress” and his peculiar and violent moral code.

The echoes of Shadow Country and the tale of Bloody Watson linger with you for weeks after finishing the novel. This sequence is a powerful journey though the transformation of America between the Civil War and the First World War. It’s a meditation on violence, progress, history, race relations, and cultural moral evolution. Fantastic work.

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