Sunday, March 6, 2011

Shadow Country, by Peter Matthiessen

Is there a Pulitzer or Booker Prize awarded for readers' endurance?   There ought to be, and I've earned it.

I know I'm committing literary heresy here.  Peter Matthiessen is deservedly revered by nearly all serious readers, and there is much about this book that I admired.  My one grievance:  it's just too damned much book. Matthiessen originally wrote three novels based upon the life and death of Edgar J. Watson, an early 20th-century outlaw-farmer who settled in southwestern Florida's Ten Thousand Islands.  He later combined the three novels into Shadow Country, reducing the original 1300 pages to 900.  In audio format, this amounts to over 40 hours.  

In Book 1, Watson's neighbours, friends, foes, family and employees tell the story of his adult life and death. (A large group of frightened neighbours gunned him down.)   In Book 2, Watson's adult son, Lucius, tries to reconstruct his father's life, returning to talk to many of those who narrated sections of Book 1.  Watson himself tells his life story in Book 3.  Along the way, Matthiessen paints often painfully vivid pictures of the Reconstruction south, the lynchings, the lawlessness, and the devastation of Florida's indigenous populations, both animal and human.   When he writes of "air thick enough to stifle a frog," breath does feel harder to come by.  

The life and story of Edgar J. Watson was a 3-decade obsession for Matthiessen , giving him the fodder for the 3 novels and the fuel to re-work them into Shadow Country.  In retrospect, I could have maintained a 1-novel interest in the man.   Someone (alas I can't remember who, or I'd give due credit) recently described a film character as "bibulous and belligerent."  It struck me that this is never a good combination of character traits, and Edgar Watson was living and dying proof of it.  40 hours was just more time than I wanted to spend in the company of Mr. Watson, his moonshine, his temper, his shotgun, and the suffering they brought to everyone in his vicinity.  Hearing the same story three times over, even as told by different characters, did nothing to mitigate its oppressiveness.  Watson was not entirely unsympathetic; Matthiessen is too skilled to draw a simplistic figure, but his obsession with his protagonist's life just never took hold of me.  By the time Watson died for the third time, I was about ready to go to the grave with him.  

Kudos, though, to Anthony Heald, who narrated this book and did a masterful job with the voices of the novel's "redneck crackers" -- both drunk and sober, "niggras", and southern belles.  

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