Published: April 27, 2008 in the New York Times
In 1898, 42-year-old Edgar J. Watson became a living legend when a book credited him with shooting the outlaw queen Belle Starr nine years earlier. The descendant of a prominent South Carolina family, the legal or common-law husband of five women, the father of possibly 10 children, a leading pioneer on the southwest coast of Florida and a man killed by a large group of his neighbors in 1910, the historical Watson has obsessed Peter Matthiessen for three decades. Between 1990 and 1999, the novels that grew out of that obsession — “Killing Mister Watson,” “Lost Man’s River” and “Bone by Bone” — were first published. In his author’s note to “Shadow Country: A New Rendering of the Watson Legend,” Matthiessen says his initial manuscript ran to more than 1,500 pages, which he was persuaded to trim and split into three books. “Shadow Country” is not a restoration of the original version but a substantial revision and the kind of rendering done in slaughterhouses, a reduction of the trilogy’s 1,300-plus pages to a more easily consumed 900 or so.
“Shadow Country” has three “books” that roughly correspond to the separate novels. Book I begins with a third-person description of Watson’s death and proceeds to the testimony of 12 first-person narrators, many of whom return several times. Except for Watson’s daughter Carrie, who writes a diary, they seem to be reciting their colloquial, digressive and sometimes unreliable memories for an oral historian. Most of these highly engaging tale-tellers are friends, employees, neighbors and relatives who knew Watson from the year — 1894 — when he first came to the region of Florida called the Ten Thousand Islands. They admire his gentlemanly manners and good looks, his hard and innovative work raising a sugar plantation from land that was little more than a mound of shells. They are also taken with his wit. He “looked and acted,” declares a woman named Mamie Smallwood, “like our idea of a hero.” But even his closest acquaintances fear Watson, sometimes for the qualities they admire, more often for his temper, his drinking and his ever present pistol.
Not long after Watson brings his wife and children to their new home at Chatham Bend, the community hears the Belle Starr story. Watson enjoys employing his reputation as a “desperado” to intimidate anyone he considers a competitor, but when a young couple squatting on his land are murdered, Watson’s history (or legend) works against him. The only suspect, he must flee his plantation, returning just for quick visits until, seven years later, he shows up with a new wife and children. Once again his past shadows him: while away from the Everglades, he beat a murder charge through the intervention of powerful friends. Now some relatives and friends shun him. Neighbors move away. Then three of his employees, one a woman, are found dead. Watson can’t prove his innocence, and when he aims his shotgun on his accusers they put 33 slugs into the man some call “bloody Watson.”
While providing smooth segues between speakers to form an essentially linear account of Watson’s rise and fall, Matthiessen uses his multiple narrators to create tantalizing ambiguities, not so much about the justice of Watson’s death or even about the facts of his life but about the contradictory attitudes of the poor “crackers” and mixed-bloods who called him “Emperor Watson.” Mamie Smallwood and her husband argue about Watson’s true nature; Mamie’s three brothers have shifting views of the enigmatic stranger. Add the Harden family and Watson’s relatives, along with the sheriff supposedly investigating him, and Matthiessen’s presentation of conflicting race, class, clan and personal loyalties is masterly.
With its historical and legendary uncertainties, this first book is a deeper South “Absalom, Absalom!,” possibly even an hommage. Like Faulkner’s Thomas Sutpen, Watson is a red-haired, grand-planning outlander who creates a plantation from nothing, then carelessly destroys it and at least one of his sons. From boyhood, Watson carried around a history of ancient Greece. In Book I, the far-flung shadow of hubris is revealed by a chorus of individual voices. To the tragic dignity of Faulkner’s novel, Matthiessen adds the ironic indignity of seeing Emperor Watson’s body buried and his life recounted by the laboring folk that he, like Sutpen, dominated.
Matthiessen cut about a hundred pages from “Killing Mister Watson,” some of them unnecessary fake news items. “Lost Man’s River” has been reduced by 300 pages, many of them first-person narrations, so Book II of “Shadow Country” is much more conventionally plotted — the story of Lucius Watson’s obsessive quest for the truth about his father. A Ph.D. in history who travels the South in the late 1920s doing archival research and conducting interviews, Lucius joins up with his long-lost half brother, Rob. These two resemble the Harvard boys, Quentin Compson and Shreve McCannon, who try to put together the Sutpen puzzle. Lucius manages to get answers to some questions: Did Watson kill those two squatters? Did he murder black cane cutters he couldn’t pay? Was Watson shot first (and appropriately) by the mulatto Henry Short? When Matthiessen occasionally allows Lucius to “record” the old folks, Book II has the down-home authority and vernacular appeal of Book I. But too often this third-person narrative of the educated Lucius’ search for his father reads like the educated author’s research for his book.
At the end of Book II, Lucius breaks free from his past and his biographical project. But Matthiessen does not. In Book III he burrows farther back by imagining Watson’s own account of his whole life, which runs about the same number of pages as “Bone by Bone.” Because Watson narrates right up to the moment of his death and because he reads or refers to poems he was unlikely to have known, this final book feels like a literary contrivance. Since his “autobiography” isn’t a deposition — or any other kind of document — that Watson could use to deceive an audience, we can presumably trust his account of the facts, if not his interpretations and rationalizations. We learn that Watson was severely beaten as a boy and thinks he suffered brain damage because he has, you see, this split personality: Edgar, the family man, and Jack, the raging killer. It’s hard to know if it’s Watson or Matthiessen who makes Watson into a case study of pathology, a victim of child abuse. Either way, it’s a diminishment.
For readers who want all the earlier dots connected, the chronological back story offered by Book III — with its Reconstruction youth, Western adventures and North Florida misadventures — will be a welcome resolution. But as in Book II, Matthiessen often includes history lessons, presumably from research, that neither Watson the man nor Watson the fictional character would have needed to provide. And Matthiessen’s dead man talking sounds, unfortunately, like the sententious and oblivious Thomas Sutpen. Faulkner knew better than to let Sutpen tell almost half of “Absalom, Absalom!,” but that’s the share Watson gets in “Shadow Country.”
Watson lived in a massive swamp bordered by numerous islands. “Killing Mister Watson” and “Lost Man’s River” were appropriately tangled archipelagoes of fact-based storytelling. By reducing his Watson materials to one volume, Matthiessen has sacrificed qualities that gave those novels their powerful reinforcing illusions of authenticity and artlessness. Book I still has that Ten Thousand Islands quality, but “Shadow Country” as a whole is like the Tamiami Trail that crosses the Everglades. It offers a quicker and easier passage through the swamp, but fewer shades and shadows.