From the Archives: Shining Wild Things
By Peter Matthiessen
Modern Library, 2008
|Given Peter Matthiessen’s second career as a naturalist, it’s impossible not to borrow from the wild settings of his fiction to describe the experience of reading each novel. At Play in the Fields of the Lord, published in 1965, is about American missionaries futilely dedicated to converting one of the last remaining uncivilized indigenous tribes planted deep in the Amazon rainforest, and reading the book feels very much like being lost in a jungle. The prose is dense, intricate, and beautiful like flowering undergrowth, and the story has the strange habit of suddenly backtracking in time and repeating scenes from different perspectives, as though Matthiessen were roaming in circles in his struggle toward some destination. One memorable chapter is made up of kaleidoscopic images that flash upon a character who has taken a native hallucinogen:|
Once upon a time, at morning, a small blood-silver river in the rising plains, the silver undersides of wind-awakened leaves, the silver spider webs in dew. A small boy hunting, poised, quick, listening, in a fine old-smelling boat parting new reeds. Soft drops falling from an oar, a new born sun, far bugling … a swan. The stalk, the shot, the yell of blackbirds, the white bird turning a slow circle, head under water. Feathers floating and wild silence …
In striking contrast to the thick growths of exposition and the long, allusive, ramifying sentences of At Play in the Fields of the Lord is the writing of Far Tortuga, published in 1975. This novel is set on a small, dilapidated ship in the Caribbean Sea, and thus its landscape is stark, almost forbiddingly empty. What few visual images appear against the horizon of the sea are fixed upon and delineated in hard, sure strokes. Most of the novel is dialogue (a hypnotic Caribbean argot), and much of the conversation is repetitive. Slowly, slowly, and indelibly, the dialogue and spare description etch the personalities and fatal flaws of each member of the ship. Moreover, every discrete paragraph is separated by line breaks, so that on each page it actually looks like they are thin rafts of words floating on a vast white ocean. It’s one of the most visually distinctive novels ever written. It looks, and reads, like this:
Sunrise at Savanna. A lone dog on the road, stiff-legged. Poinsettia and jasmine, low white walls.
Green parrots cross the sunburst to the mango trees. Light polishes gray-silver cabin sides, glows in the bolls of the wild cotton, shine the dun flanks of a silken cow in pastures of rough guinea grass; a gumbo limbo tree, catching up sun in red translucent peels of shedding bark, glows on black, burned-over ground between gray jutting bones of ocean limestone.
New sun on a vermilion fence. Breadfruit and tamarind.
Then, after so much steady, intent pacing on the deck, the end strikes like a typhoon and has nearly the blunt, sudden impact as the climax of Moby-Dick. It’s the novel’s form that makes this ending so powerful, because by that point we’ve learned to fill the white space with our understanding of the environment and especially of the characters, and Matthiessen can spring their individual fates upon us using virtually no words at all. It’s not a writing voice Matthiessen is searching for when he composes his novels—the exposition in all the fiction he’s written is stately, refined, beautifully descriptive, and as dispassionate as an anthropologist’s; he’s looking instead for a form that fits his subject, through which he can discipline his voice and make it stand out from that of innumerable other skilled and stately stylists. Far Tortuga is different from most other novels because it is, along with being a great story, a work of art.
The search for the form of his newest book Shadow Country, published in a handsome and heavy hardback by the Modern Library, has evidently occupied Matthiessen for the past thirty years—and one genuinely wonders if it would have gone on longer were he not now in his eighties. Shadow Country was originally published as three separate novels during the 1990s—Killing Mister Watson, Lost Man’s River, and Bone by Bone—but the whole comprised by the trilogy dissatisfied Matthiessen: in the Author’s Note he writes, for instance, that the second book reminded him “not agreeably of the long belly of a dachshund, slung woefully between its upright legs” (form, as we’ve seen, is always a living organism for Matthiessen, even when it fails him). Shadow Country is a compression of these three books—Matthiessen estimates that he cut 400 pages—into one large three-part, single-volume novel.
|All this work has been devoted to finding the best means to explore the nature of one man, a turn-of-the-century Florida Everglades pioneer named Edgar J. Watson. Watson is a real figure and you can find his capsule biography all over the Internet (you can also camp and tell ghost stories at the site of his house if you visit Everglades National Park): he came to Florida in middle age under the suspicion of fleeing justice after murdering a woman. He established the first successful company in the area of the Ten Thousand Islands, producing syrup from sugar cane, but rumors of further murders continued to blacken his name until, after a hurricane in 1910, he was shot to death by a posse made up of his neighbors.|
Watson’s death is the first thing in Shadow Country and also the last, and the rest of the novel deals with what preceded it and its troubled postscript; but even the aftermath finds Watson’s survivors obsessively wheeling back in time trying to lay bare the truth of who their father was. It’s the unresolved meaning of Edgar Watson’s life that haunts—and ultimately eludes—the characters of this book, and it does the same for Matthiessen, as we will see.
The meaning of the man they all seek is one infinitely complicated by legend. The first book of Shadow Country is narrated by a chorus of Watson’s neighbors and family members, each of whose versions of Watson’s life is colored by bias or hearsay or apologia, by adoration or bitterness or shame or fear. There is Erskine Thompson, Watson’s riverboat captain, who says at the start that “We never had no trouble from Mister Watson, and from what we seen, he never caused none, not amongst his neighbors,” yet later reveals that Watson took his mother as a mistress, got her pregnant, and then kicked her out of the house. There is Watson’s daughter Carrie, who, as child, deifies her father, but years later refuses to let him into her home. There is Henry Short, a quiet and studiously inoffensive figure who was the lone black man at Watson’s killing and who, even in these otherwise frank testimonials, refuses to discuss his involvement in it.
The Watson who emerges from these varying accounts is naturally a hoary, outsized figure. A local farmer named Owen Harden admires foremost his business acumen, describing him as a visionary entrepreneur cut from the same cloth as Carnegie and Ford:
Watson knew that whoever had title to the few pieces of high ground on the mangrove coast would control the whole Ten Thousand Islands…. [His] grand idea was to salvage the huge river dredge that the Disston Company had abandoned up the Calusa Hatchee, ship it on barges south to Lost Man’s, dig a ship channel upriver through the orster bars and dredge out First Lost Man’s Bay for a protected harbor. Docks, trading post, and hunting lodge, bird shot, bullets, fishing tackle, wild meat, fresh fish, homegrown garden produce, fine quality cane syrup, maybe cane moonshine of his own manufacture. Yankee yacht trade in the winter, hunters, trappers, mullet netters, and maybe a few Mikasuki [Indians] all year round. That long mile of Lost Man’s Beach with its royal palms and pure white coral sand would beat any touristical resort on the east coast.
Erskine Thompson, in contrast, knows him—and seems to respect him—for a short-tempered, slave-driving boss who gets the maximum production out of the most recalcitrant workers. The postmaster’s wife Mamie Smallwood, aware of the rumors of “Watson’s Payday”—the rumor that he murders his workers when it’s time to pay them—sees in his apparent smirking indifference to violence the embodiment of what most terrifies her about existence:
Knowing what he was up against with our House family [who have threatened to arrest Watson for the rumored murders], he did not scowl to scare or threaten, he did something worse: he disarmed me with a wink, a reckless confidential wink that made my righteous indignation feel downright foolish, made everything he’d told this crowd a joke, made everything in this world simply ridiculous for the fundamental reason that our precious human life, for all its joys, was blood-soaked, cruel, and empty, with only sorrow, fear, and disease at its dark end, fading to nothingness.
Other characters recall Watson winking at them in the midst of some terrible occasion as well, and each time they are disturbed by the sense that some evil force is mocking the tenuous toehold of civilization they’ve managed to notch into the Everglades. Much of the low-simmering force of Shadow Country, which is most evident in the first book, draws from the evocations of its unruly natural setting. One of Matthiessen’s great insights as a novelist has been to give humans a baseline parity with other animals—they are simply another species (albeit an especially bloodthirsty species: the graceful jungle cats of At Play in the Fields of the Lord, the peaceable sea turtles in Far Tortuga, and even the huge, lolling crocodiles in Shadow Country are constant indictments of the peculiar viciousness of Homo sapiens) struggling to survive in their uncaring habitats, and their nests are no more secure than those of the egrets and herons hunted for their plumes. Watson’s murder (his killers are described as “one great shapeless animal”) follows a ravaging hurricane, and the two events in succession destroy the hopes of the first wave of settlers on the Ten Thousand Islands. As local Hoad Storter explains,
…the dead silence and loneliness, along with the knowing that all a man had cleared off, hoed, and built, all the hard labor and discouragement of years and years, could be washed away overnight—that knowledge broke their spirit, that and the scent of human blood back in the river.
Uncertainty is the underlying difficulty with Shadow Country and what gives the book its ungainly length as it circles and circles this one character in order to try to better make him out. But the menace of uncertainty, as it applies to life and therefore to all of us, is always just below the surface of events, giving a scary and intimate gravitas to what might otherwise be no more serious than the backwater violence of, say, James Dickey’s Deliverance.
But for practical purposes, the first book of Shadow Country serves to utterly entangle the myths of Watson with the man, and far more questions are created than resolved: is Watson guilty of any or all of the murders he’s bruited to have carried out, and was he finally shot to death in communal self-defense or by a vengeful lynch mob? The central actor of Book Two is Watson’s son Lucius—a mild-mannered side character in the other books—who returns to the Everglades in a desperate and dangerous attempt to write a history redeeming his father and himself from the lineal taint of the nickname “Bloody Watson.” If Matthiessen did indeed go to lengths to improve this section, all his work is easily justified, because Book Two is a taut, expert story of the collision of three brothers trying to live out their father’s legacy in the very different ways they understand it.
Lucius takes after the mannerly, introspective, even loving side of Watson; he is a Hamlet idealizing his father as a Hyperion and wanting to honor his memory, but not knowing how. Rob is the unloved first-born who acquires Watson’s nihilism, drunkenness, and stubborn, implacable remorse for the wrongs he’s taken part in. And Watt, considered to be one of Watson’s illegitimate sons, is the vindictive and nakedly ambitious part of Watson, unalloyed by any other traits. The only purely evil nature in the whole book (which is no mean feat), Watt is of course a lawyer, representing the syrup company and trying to expand its power at any cost. The clashing personalities and vying desires of the three brothers unfold dramatically—and, still, bleakly—and we see how the blood feuds Watson began visit the heads of his children.
For all that, though, book three is the linchpin of Shadow Country because it is narrated by Edgar Watson himself. It is what we have been faithfully reading toward, and the reason that we have patiently followed Matthiessen while he tried to get a bead on his quarry. Yet this book that seems to promise to distill the Watson legend to its essential truths is in many ways the oddest, most problematic part of the novel.
The problem begins on the very first page, because it is simply never clear who this narrator truly is. Matthiessen writes in his (perhaps ill-advisedly explanatory) Author’s Note that this is “Mister Watson’s own version of events,” but the nagging trouble here is that we know Watson is going to die on the final page of his narration, so there is no way to locate where his reflections are coming from and thus gauge how much to believe them. A far preferable possibility is that Book Three is a fictional memoir written by Lucius, who has given up his revisionist history but not his need to come to terms with his father. This is actually hinted at in the last pages of Book Two, but there is no further evidence to support it, and then there’s Matthiessen’s own statement.
Even if it seems like a quibble to object that a person can’t narrate a story in which he dies, there is furthermore simply something unnatural about Watson’s voice—it sounds different from the way we remember him speaking in Book One. It is throughout polished, poetic, and, considering the subject matter, almost disconcertingly dispassionate. Eventually, we realize that Watson writes of his life in the same way that Matthiessen writes prose.
Matthiessen, of course, is one of the 20th century’s masters of dialect, so it’s not as though he were incapable of giving Watson an individual way of expressing himself. What seems to have happened is that, in his own obsessive need to grasp this character, Matthiessen has pushed himself to the front of the novel. The quest for truth is no longer only Watson’s neighbors’ or Lucius’, but now is overtly Matthiessen’s as well.
The presence of the author’s shadow across Book Three—Matthiessen’s unquelled need to forcibly intervene in his own work of fiction—leads to a number of contrivances, and none is worse than the explanation given for Watson’s violent behavior. Watson describes being abused as a child by his shiftless and cowardly father, and gradually the abuse spawns “‘Jack Watson,’ a shadow brother I had conceived out of loneliness.” This angry alter-ego appears whenever Watson is hurt or threatened, as here when his father is about to beat him with a hickory stick:
Slowly I stood. My ear and wrenched arm fired my rage and in a moment Jack was there. Commanded to lean forward, hands spread wide on the log wall, I turned a little in seeming resignation, then whirled and grasped the wood, twisting it free before he could secure his hold.
Shadow Country has to this point dealt with violence with such unblinking intrepidity that it is truly painful to have Watson’s personality explicated by so reductive an origin. (It raises the problem of narration once again, as well, since it seems unlikely that a man with a murderous split personality would be able to calmly and lucidly define the contours of his disorder.)
The ultimate effect is one it is hard to imagine that Matthiessen could have wanted: Watson is put forward as a victim, and a largely unpersuasive victim at that. Time and again we find him rationalizing away his crimes and his cowardice (he not only guilty of violence: he abandons his son Rob, who reminds him too much of his dead wife), blaming his actions on “Jack,” on poverty, on drunkenness, on the provocations of others. And when, eventually, his crimes become entirely premeditated and cold-blooded (he’s actually innocent of the first few murders he’s accused of, although his unlucky habit of catching the blame for them feels again a little contrived), his excuses become in turn pallidly self-pitying and unmanly.
In time, once the reader’s disenchantment has set in, this new sad, mealy-mouthed Watson becomes a complicated character in his own right, and well repays the reading (a few terrific bursts of drama combined with Matthiessen’s first-rate prose sweeten the bargain), but there remains a very real sense of anticlimax when we discover that this purportedly towering character—this “Emperor Watson”—is not going to be great. There is nothing of Macbeth in Watson, nor of Achilles, nor even of Captain Raib of Far Tortuga, whose self-destructive pride is accompanied by a moment of glory and exaltation. Watson has no tragic dimensions because he has no particular noble qualities (his tenacity comes the closest) to balance his evils. His anger and passion are glandular, almost never righteous. He kills people when he knows the law will not bother him about it (Blacks, convicts, drifters), and in other cases he tricks stupid people into doing his work for him. The only lasting truth that Watson turns out to contain is that, in evil times a hardened thug can profit for a while.
But it is no small consolation that we nevertheless find the grand tragedy of Shadow Country, not in Watson, but in the times in which he profited. If Watson turns out to be only a captive of his age, it is in part because his age may be one of the most wicked in recorded history. The depiction of the post-Reconstruction South is consistently vivid and fearsome in all three books, regardless of the form those books take. It’s a world whose inhabitants seem to have only two abiding passions: race hatred and the acquisition of land.
The shadow of the novel’s title is given innumerable permutations, but its darkest presence is the racism that is perversely nurtured by every white person like a loved child of the land. The absolute sanction on violence against blacks is the canker that corrupts the law that allows Watson and others like him to do whatever they please. There is likewise no check on the spoliation of the land, and the slaughter of birds and alligators, as well as the dredging of rivers and the razing of forests are ongoing activities throughout Shadow Country.
The land is beautiful too, though, and Matthiessen captures that quality, providing the only bright moments in this arduous, rewarding novel. Here, in yet uncorrupted territory, is the sense of hope that offsets the fear and horror, and keens the edges of them all. As a pioneer to this promising wilderness, Edgar Watson is at last a fit vessel to express the hope found in dangerous, unsettled land:
These hinterlands, so distant from the settlements, remained uncultivated and unhunted. The bargeman said that in Spanish times, when a road was opened from St. Augustine on the Atlantic coast to Pensacola on the Gulf, there were still buffalo in these savannas, and also the great jaguar, called tigre, and panthers, bears, and red wolves were still common. Sometimes, at night, shrill screams scared Mama and poor Ninny half to death—not white females being violated by naked savages as they imagined but panthers mating, the bargeman assured Mama, who recoiled from this man’s vulgar liberty. Bull gators coughed and roared back in the swamps, and once there came a lonely howl that he identified as the red wolf. Flocks of huge black fowl in the glades were bronze-backed turkeys, and everywhere, wild ducks jumped from the bulrushes and reeds, shedding bright water. I shot big drakes and gobblers for provisions and pin-hooked all the fresh fish we could eat. Pairs of great woodpeckers larger than crows, with flashing white bills and crimson crests afire in the sun, crossed the river in deep bounding flight, and hurtling flocks of small long-tailed parrots, bright green as new leaves in the morning light. The wild things were shining with spring colors and new sap and finally I was, too. I would sink my teeth into this morning land like a fresh peach.
Sam Sacks has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, Columbia Journal of American Studies, freezerbox.com, and thefanzine.com, and The Quarterly Conversation. He lives in New York City.