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Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen

Fred Grimm
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Matthiessen does murder so well, the reader can see the rage in Watson's feral eyes. Can feel the blade of his razor drawing across the throat.

Shadow Country

Publisher: Modern Library
ISBN: 0679640193
Author: Peter Matthiessen
Price: $40.00
Length: 892
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2008-04

The news of it, this peculiar amalgamation called Shadow Country, washes up against wary skepticism in Florida. In other places, the notion that Peter Matthiessen has condensed his great rambling Watson trilogy into a single, hefty volume might set off polite academic expostulation.

But in Florida, the trilogy was more than a critical masterpiece. It was "our" story. The metaphor of greed, ruin and ruthlessness that runs like a meandering river through Killing Mr. Watson, Lost Man's River and Bone by Bone tells of the unholy mess we've made of our state.

The novels, set amid the inscrutable maze of the Ten Thousand Islands, combined to re-imagine the legendary life of one man, Edgar J. Watson, a rancorous, real-life sugar-cane planter. But Watson's story told the larger truth about the ruthless men who came to Florida at the onset of the 20th century and set off an orgy of wanton destruction in the pursuit of commerce.

Watson, who arrived in southwest Florida in 1892 with a murderous reputation -- he was rumored, among other killings, to have shot the Oklahoma outlaw Belle Starr -- was yet another of the shady, audacious pioneers who came to wreak havoc and make fortunes (and often lose those fortunes). Not many early Floridians suffered such an ignominious end as the man dubbed Bloody Watson for the violent deaths that kept accumulating on his Chatham River farm. On October 24, 1910, a mob of his neighbors gathered around Smallwood's store on Chokoloskee Island and gunned Watson down.

Matthiessen deserves credit for decades of meticulous research and obsessive details and soaring prose that converted the Watson legend into critically acclaimed literature. But in a state generally ignorant of its past, his fiction stood in for our actual history. Naturally, we assumed the novels belonged to us. If nothing else, we figured to have squatter's rights.

Eighteen years after the publication of Killing Mr. Watson, the idea of Matthiessen's retooling his three-volume masterpiece sounds, hereabouts, like blasphemy. Like touching up the Declaration of Independence or reducing the 150 Psalms to a more manageable number. Floridians hearing about i>Shadow Country are apt to repeat the frantic words of the protagonist's young wife in its prologue: "Oh Lord God. They are killing Mr. Watson."

Except he didn't. Didn't devastate. Didn't ruin. Didn't dumb-down the trilogy into a Reader's Digest abridgement for the idiot masses. Matthiessen reduced the 1,320-page trilogy to a single volume, but, at 892 pages, Shadow Country could still do considerable damage dropped on the head of a yappy dog or a whiny child.

Book One of Shadow Country -- Killing Mr. Watson before the rewrite -- remains a series of monologues in dialect, as if they were transcripts of oral histories, from relatives and acquaintances, each with a different perspective on the Watson saga. What cutting Matthiessen performed on Book One was so surgical it is imperceptible.

As famous for his nature writing as his novels, Matthiessen permeates the prose with a sense of land, wind, animals, mangroves, shellbanks and water. And his gut-wrenching descriptions of the alligator and plume hunters foretell what would happen to the Everglades. "A broke-up rookery, that ain't a picture you want to think about too much. The pile of carcasses let behind when you strip the plumes and move on to the next place is just pitiful, and it's a piss-poor way to harvest, cause there ain't no adults left to feed them young and protect `em from the sun and rain, let alone the crows and the buzzards that come sailing and flopping in, tear `em to pieces."

Matthiessen does murder so well, the reader can see the rage in Watson's feral eyes. Can feel the blade of his razor drawing across the throat.

Most of the cutting was done to the middle novel, the story of Watson's son Lucius, who comes back years later to his father's homestead. He investigates. He collects the names of the lynch mob. He contemplates revenge.

Lost Man's River was the least compelling of the trilogy, and Matthiessen, in the author's note with Shadow Country, is tougher than any critic, complaining that the book "lacked its own armature or bony skeleton ... it became amorphous, reminding me not agreeably of the long belly of a dachshund, slung woefully between two pairs of sturdy legs."

The dachshund was reduced by 302 pages. The effect allows the reader to hurry onto what was once Bone by Bone, Watson's tale told by Watson.

But while Matthiessen reduced the original work, he added to the racial undercurrent. Shadow Country includes the voice of black farmer Henry Shorter, who was among the shooters that day in Chokoloskee and maybe was the real killer, an outrageous proposition in Jim Crow Florida. A lynching was one thing. A black man raising his rifle against a white man, even Bloody Watson, was unthinkable.

Slimmed down, Shadow Country probably works better than the original trilogy. Anyone wanting an explanation for what happened to Florida can now find it in a single novel, a great American novel. But when you live here in "Shadow Country", it has always been more than that.


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