A New Rendering of the Watson Legend
Modern Library: 892 pp., $40
“Shadow Country” is a great big book that I read in the early spring of this year as American culture celebrated a pair of monomaniacal killers, Sweeney Todd and Anton Chigurh. The central axle of Peter Matthiessen’s magnificent and capacious novel is another larger-than-life figure, E.J. Watson (Bloody Watson, Emperor Watson), who was a brave and indefatigable pioneer in the Florida Everglades and an astonishing liar and murderer.
For his renegade behavior, his rigid code for revenge, his skill with firearms, his winning volubility and, finally, his reflection, he dwarfs these other killers. Watson is at once a real man in a rough world and a figure cut from legend (some of which he encouraged). Ultimately, he represents the American conquest of the frontier, which this novel proves once and for all was not a pretty or romantic enterprise or one accompanied by fairness or justice. Watson did what he wanted when he wanted, regardless of the law as it was at the outset of the 20th century.
Such a book requires a vivid and convincing world, and Matthiessen -- who knows the truth of place as well as any writer -- gives us an effulgent setting here, the edge of edge, the raw and ravishing Everglades deep in Florida as the 19th century turned. It is a place both beautiful and nightmarish, a wetland Garden of Eden brimming with birds and beasts and reptiles, offering itself to the men who come and start to carve it up into cane fields and shallow graves. Millions of egrets are massacred for their plumes, their rookeries wasted, and legions of alligators are slaughtered for a few inches of their flat bellies, and so go the buffalo, panthers and deer. This special place capitulates its innocence and bounty to the hard hand of the exploiting pioneers, the first desperate settlers and later the canny corporations with their march of progress.
Like all American frontiers, the Everglades are glorious and doomed, and Watson is both resident and vandal, emperor and criminal. He is a figure absolutely inflated by rumor. His legend has him killing Belle Starr and knowing Jesse James. He becomes a successful if ruthless cane farmer, respected and feared in a society where those words were synonyms. His workers fear the “Watson Payday,” which makes them reluctant to request their wages.
In “Shadow Country,” Matthiessen revisits his three novels about the career of Watson (“Killing Mister Watson,” “Lost Man’s River” and “Bone by Bone”) and fits them together so that they unfold, layer by layer, mystery by mystery, episode by episode, gathering, gathering, nodding back and forth, in a tangle not unlike the living imbroglio in which the tale is set, the impenetrable jungle wetland of the Florida lowlands. I’ll just say right here that the book took my sleeve and like the ancient mariner would not let go.
Matthiessen has made his three-part saga into a new thing. It starts with the remarkable gambit of displaying the cataclysmic murder of Watson by his neighbors on the wooden dock in front of Smallwood’s post office, his body the repository of dozens of wounds and 33 rounds of ammunition. And so, the sprawling story commences with a host of characters bearing witness, a chorus of relatives, wives and employees all offering notes on their association with Watson and touching quickly on the circumstances of the shooting. In these 51 monologues, which consti- tute the first third of “Shadow Country,” there are 14 different voices, salty and cagey, some speaking with the same dry discrimination they used when Watson himself was alive. All of them are vivid and individual and educated by rough experience, the natural world, an earthy understanding of what men do. It is a tour de force and weaves a provocative if contradictory history by the end of what Matthiessen frames here as Book One.
Book Two follows Lucius Watson, one of Watson’s sons, in his long personal quest to avenge and then exonerate his father. Lucius is the conscience of the novel. His father’s death spins him into a maelstrom of anger and confusion, which slowly coalesces into a desire for justice. He goes out to his father’s homestead and name by name compiles a list of all the men who were at Smallwood’s on the fateful day. It was a gang of armed men, which then gets renamed a posse, as the case moves into the hands of the authorities.
Throughout “Shadow Country,” with its twisted family trees, we see the dominance of blood traits passed from father to son, and Lucius is a beautiful example of a man spurred by his father’s appetites but held by his own judiciousness. He goes off to the Great War as a superlative marksman whose work as a sniper ultimately disgusts him. Returned to the wetlands, with his notorious list, he’s an unwelcome silent figure, spurned and avoided by his neighbors.
This is a world in which men are always aware who is behind them and where the guns are. Oddly, in a book that rings with true violence, calculated and casual -- so much of it having to do with the racial maelstrom of the post-Reconstruction South -- the ugliest moment is perpetrated by the vile and persistent lawyer Dyer, who is playing the largest game in the story, pursuing the land and courting the corporations. In a hotel buffet, he insults the black chef in a stark, unsettling display of racial hatred. Lucius is Matthiessen’s reluctant prophet, drawn into work he never really wanted but in no way could avoid. He uses every means to compile his record, and he writes it down, and when he sees his family’s secrets, he assigns his life’s work to embers.
Ultimately, “Shadow Country” -- which has still so many questions roiling under the marled murky surface -- quickens and starts anew in the first-person voice of the citizen himself: E.J. Watson. And what is his monumental monologue? It is a marvel of confession: a love song, a rationalization, a history lesson. There is an ardor in his voice, which is compelling, as if we were walking to the gallows with a charismatic charmer. And it is a long walk.
Watson saw his first man killed when he was 6, and later, still a lad, he was radically betrayed by his father. Spared by chance, he vowed revenge. He developed a rigid code, which required him to kill those who crossed or insulted him. “Whenever someone threatens to tell tales on me, get me into trouble, a taste of iron comes into my mouth and my hand hardens in a rage that spins up from the oldest corner of my brain,” he declares. He loved the land. He loved women and had several wives and children. Matthiessen describes, from the inside, his anguish and his anger with such authority that they pulse with heat and life.
There is much in the wicked tapestry of Watson’s own tale that is powerfully reminiscent of the darkest sides of Twain. Freed from any comic gloss, it is as if Huck’s pap is loose upon the swale. Of his drinking, Watson notes: “Most of the time when I drink, like any man, I gamble with trouble. Might pick a fight, shoot out the lights, smash something up out of the energy of life, just for the hell of it -- just for the fun of breaking. The . . . glee of it. Or not so much glee as some queer ecstasy that releases itself in senselessness, ever feel that? Some union through destruction that whirls a man free of his doomed puny self like the force that drove those mullet upward through the river surface. . . .”
Finally now we have these books welded like a bell, and with Watson’s song the last sound, all the elements fuse and resonate. He is a killer, but he has our ear. He, unlike the other killers, considers his deeds and is both riven and braced by his behaviors. The rueful story of what he made his son Rob do is heartbreaking and -- among all the atrocities -- it breaks Watson’s heart too. And there are moments when he can enjoin his silver tongue, and the litany of things he did and had done to him comes pouring in a plenitude, a groaning genealogy of violence and harm that goes beyond the allegorical purposes of literature to become the breathtaking saga of who this fierce and contradictory man actually was. *
Ron Carlson is the author of nine books of fiction, most recently the novel “Five Skies.” He directs the graduate writing program in fiction at UC Irvine.