Review: Peter Matthiessen’s “Shadow Country”

by Miles Raymer

Shadow Country

This book became known to me when a friend spoke of it with reverence during a long walk in the woods. I was immediately captivated by his description of an historical novel derived from Peter Matthiessen’s “Watson trilogy,” originally published in the 1990s. In 2008, Matthiessen published Shadow Country, the definitive fictional rendering of his decade-spanning obsession with the story of Edgar Watson, a real-life figure whose checkered life and notorious death in the Ten Thousand Islands region of Southern Florida were shrouded in hearsay and mystery. It is a spellbinding masterpiece of remarkable depth and darkness.

Shadow Country is structured in a way that is completely unique compared to other novels I’ve read. The overarching narrative revolves around the murder of Edgar Watson at the hands of his neighbors in 1910 in Chokoloskee, Florida. The book is presented in three parts, each representing one of the standalone novels from the original Watson trilogy. The first part brings the reader into the world of Watson’s community in the Ten Thousand Islands––a hardscrabble, cantankerous assortment of frontiersmen and -women trying to make it in an place that was “still wilderness, and nobody really knew what was where nor who owned what” (34). Matthiessen brings the first-person perspectives of these colorful “swamp people” to life, with each offering his or her particular interpretation of Watson’s role in the community and the circumstances leading up to his murder. As in any good detective novel, the reader receives bits and pieces of semi-reliable information, but is left with “more questions than good answers” (228).

The second part is told in the third person, and follows Lucius, one of Watson’s sons, through his journey into adulthood. Lucius’s development is darkened at every turn by the shadow of his father’s unseemly legacy. As he learns to cultivate his love of nature and regional history, Lucius becomes determined to uncover the enigmatic details of his father’s life and restore his family’s good name––if such a thing is possible. Although Lucius’s narrative delivers many critical insights that deepen the reader’s understanding of Edgar Watson’s life, many stones are still unturned as Lucius inevitably confronts the limitations of his own perspective and the paucity of hard evidence that might definitively exculpate or condemn his father’s memory:

Man wants to know the truth about Ed Watson…Where you aim to find it? Smallwoods’ll tell you their truth, Hardens’ll tell you theirs. Fat-ass guard out there, he’ll tell you his and I’ll give you another. Which one you aim to settle for and make your peace with? (390)

Part three transports the reader into the mind of Edgar Watson himself, who lays out his life story from start to finish. I found this part to be the best by far, but it would not have been nearly as enthralling without the preceding 500 pages of speculation and investigation regarding Watson’s nature and actions. Watson proves himself a truly compelling antihero with a considerable capacity for self-understanding:

I faced the fact that I had not always taken care of trouble the right way. I had never admitted, for example, that a lot of it was of my own manufacture…Some would say that Edgar Watson is a bad man by nature. Ed Watson is the man I was created. If I was created evil, somebody better hustle off to church, take it up with God. I don’t believe a man is born with a bad nature. I enjoy folks, most of ‘em. But it’s true that I drink too much in my black moods, see only threats and enmity on every side. And in that darkness I strike too fast, and by the time I come clear, trouble has caught up with me again. (806)

Shadow Country’s singular structure is enough to make it one of the more interesting novels I’ve ever encountered, but Matthiessen’s command of prose is what makes this book a genuine work of art. Dancing between various Southern dialects and more literary passages, the writing in Shadow Country is magnificent on every one of its nearly 900 pages. Matthiessen brokers a perfect union between precise language and expansive thinking, achieving the intellectual density of a writer like William Faulkner without the hurdles of accessibility for which Faulkner is famous.

Although there is a nearly endless list of interesting things one could say about this novel, I’ll focus my review on just two more. The first is the hellish web of oppression in which every character in this novel is caught. I came to this book with a spotty, abstract understanding of the post-Reconstruction South, but Shadow Country brought this horrific environment to life for me like nothing else ever has. Matthiessen’s depiction of life in the Ten Thousand Islands region is a shocking distillation of all the worst features of American history: the vicious legacies of slavery and Native American genocide, sexism, classism, environmental destruction, alcoholism, blind tribalism, and self-loathing.

While Watson certainly participates in his fair share of dastardly behaviors, he’s far from the worst perpetrator of injustice we encounter. Even the most privileged members of this society are subject to the oppressive weather, which brings dangers and discomforts of all kinds to the doorsteps of every man, woman and child. Readers averse to depictions of raw, unfiltered brutality should keep away from this novel. Watching these truculent, ignorant Americans bully and bloody each other time and again stirs concordance with Watson’s suggestion that we humans are perhaps not the most suitable stewards of the planet:

I nominate hogs to inherit the Earth, because hogs love to eat any old damned thing God sets in front of them, and they’re ever so grateful for God’s green earth even when it’s all rain and mud, and they just plain adore to feed and fuck and frolic and fulfill God’s holy plan. For all we know, it’s hogs which are created in God’s image, who’s to say? (737)

The second aspect of Shadow Country that I think deserves recognition is its focus on the challenge of trying to be a good person in a world that does not reward goodness. Despite his numerous inherent flaws, Edgar Watson desires to embody his idea of a successful, decent man. He diligently toils toward this end at many points in his life, and is repeatedly thwarted by circumstance, his own personal shortcomings, or a combination of both. His world is one where subversion, dominance, and blind luck trump hard work, ethical thinking, and humility. Watson’s internal struggle––dramatized by Matthiessen’s introduction of “Jack” Watson, an alter ego who surfaces to defend Edgar in desperate moments––is shot through with longing for a world that does not exist, and culminates with his tragic self-condemnation:

Somewhere Twain said, I don’t believe in Hell but I am afraid of it. One day when I quoted those words, Lucius asked me my opinion, no doubt wondering if his Papa, too, might be afraid of Hell (being so unlikely to wind up in Heaven)…I shrugged him off, saying I’d had no word from the “higher-ups” as to my fate. I could have answered him more honestly. I could have said, I don’t believe in God and never have. I could have said that on Judgment Day, when the true worth and meaning of one’s life is weighed, the judge I feared most would be Edgar Watson. (856, emphasis his)

It is some small comfort that a man such as Watson might confront his villainous deeds, allowing them equal standing with whatever goodness he managed to squeeze out of a difficult life. But much more comforting would be to think that the world is a place where such compromises might not be necessary. If such a world exists, no human has ever seen it.

I cannot leave Shadow Country without highlighting one final passage. In this riverside exchange between Watson and his second wife, Mandy, Matthiessen’s superb synthesis of literary sophistication and muddy grit could not be more potent:

My worry was the children’s love of playing at the water’s edge and paddling in the shallows. Sharks came upriver with the tide, Erskine assured me, and immense alligators, fifteen foot and better, drifted downriver from the Glades in the summer rains. Drawn to commotion, gliding underwater toward the bank, these grim brutes were always on the lookout for unwary creatures along shore. One gigantic specimen of a queer gray-greenish color would haul out on the far bank, where it sometimes lay all day like a dead tree. Often its long jaws would be fixed open, and the boys claimed they could see its teeth glint all the way across our wide bend in the river. Uneasy when that thing was missing, fearing its shadow presence in the current, Mandy kept a close eye on the children and the dogs while reading in her chair beneath the poincianas.

One afternoon over lemonade and cookies, discussing our wilderness with the children, she quoted some opinions of the poets. A Miss Dickinson of New England had concluded that the true nature of Nature was malevolent, whereas the self-infatuated Mr. Whitman of New York found undomesticated nature merely detestable. What could such people know of Nature, Mandy inquired, pointing at that huge motionless gray-green beast across the river: nature was not malevolent, far less detestable, but simply oblivious, indifferent, and God’s indifference as manifested in such creatures was infinitely more terrifying than literary notions of malevolence could ever be. To regard such an engine of predation without awe, or dare to dismiss it as detestable––wasn’t that to suggest that the Creator might detest His own Creation? (659-60)

Rating: 10/10