What I am Reading: Shadow Country

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.

Moby Trek: Mission Failure

Last fall the New Bedford Whaling Museum sent an email to the membership inviting them to read in the 13th annual Moby Dick marathon in early January.

Dork that I am, I signed up for a slot and was told on the automated voice response system that I would get a confirmation in early December.

I didn’t get a confirmation until last week, on Monday, and I was informed by the nice lady that my reading time was 5:20 am on Sunday January 4 (today) and that I needed to arrive at least an hour beforehand. Let’s see. 4:20 am in New Bedford. Need to find a parking place by 4 am. New Bedford is 45 miles from Cotuit. So …. Wake up at 3 am on the last night of the holiday break to read ten minutes from an assuredly great novel that was the ruination of its author and wasn’t “discovered” until 1920, many decades after his death?

I asked family what they would do and they all said I was an idiot and none would come to watch me be an idiot. Then I asked Uncle Fester who said, and I quote from the IM exchange:

“Are you f%^king kidding me? Loser! That’s worse that being a Trekkie going to a ComicCon. Reading Moby Dick from the deck of a whaling ship in the dark in front of other Moby Dick Trekkies. I’ll only respect you if you do it dressed as Spock.”

Not having a Spock suit, but getting Fester’s point, I slept in this morning and am glad for it. There was only one passage I wanted to read, and that is the piece I read at my father’s funeral in 1980.

Here it is:

“Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only through numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those that we left behind secure, were all the time before us.

Were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we could for ever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon, then there were promise in the voyage. But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.”