Peter Matthiessen

I just finished reading Shadow Country by Peter Matthiesen, an American author, naturalist and all-around amazing man who died last year.  Check him out for some of the other things he did (CIA agent, co-founder of the Paris Review, etc.), but I wanted to tell you about this book.  Back in the '90s, Matthiessen wrote a trilogy of historical fiction (Killing Mr. Watson, Bone by Bone and Lost Man's RIver) that all tell the same story.  But he wasn't happy with that, so he rewrote them as Shadow Country,  which rewrites and incorporates the first three in one book.  

The story is set on the Gulf Coast of Florida from about 1890 to 1910, and follows the career of Edgar A. (later J.) Watson, who was eventually gunned down by a posse of his friends and neighbors.  I've now read the story seven times (I read Killing Mr. Watson twice) and I'm still fascinated.  Part of that is because Matthiessen was such a great writer, and rest is that the sage is such a great combination of American themes -- violence, ambition, racism, capitalism, community, family, public opinion, myth, ecology, justice, frontier, sex and drunkenness.  And probably a couple of minor themes I missed.  One book is third-person omniscient, one is told through Watson's eyes and the third through the eyes of a son, educated as an historian, who makes a vain scholarly attempt to clear his father's name.

Like many of the scattered residents of the Ten Thousand Islands, Watson was an outlaw, hiding from his past.  He was also a charming man (unless drink brought out his violent temper) , a family man (with several families, some simultaneously), and a successful businessman (who was rumored to keep his payroll costs down by killing off employees).  It's never clear how many people he killed, versus how many he prompted others to kill -- but the total murders in which he was involved ran to 15 or so.  And myth and rumor added to that number.   He escaped jail once, bought his way out another time, and was found innocent two other times -- through influence or bribed juries.  

Despite all this, he persisted in trying to make it big.  His dream was to develop the Gulf Coast the same way Miami was being developed on the Atlantic Coast.  It still hasn't happened, as Watson's empire of swamp and islands, from Key West up to Marco Island, is still pretty much as he found it over 100 years ago.  I've always thought Florida was uninhabitable, and this book does nothing to discourage that thought.

The joy of reading Matthiessen is, in large part, his prose style.  As a naturalist and environmentalist, his descriptions of the heat, loneliness and danger of the Everglades, and the devastation of the hurricanes, put you in the place and time. You're never quite sure which parts are fictionalized or extrapolated from facts, especially the characters of Watson, his family and the other denizens of this odd American frontier