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Matthiessen's 'Shadow Country' masterfully reunites Edgar Watson novels

With Shadow Country, Peter Matthiessen may at last have exorcised for himself the ghost of Edgar Watson, legendary Florida outlaw and businessman.

For readers, he has brought the man even more indelibly to life.

Matthiessen has grappled with Watson — a real person who was a sugar planter in the Ten Thousand Islands of southwest Florida a century ago — in more than 3,000 pages of fiction, over more than 30 years of his distinguished career as a writer.

He published three critically acclaimed novels about Watson in the 1990s, Killing Mr. Watson, Lost Man's River and Bone by Bone, totaling about 1,300 pages. But he was unsatisfied with that version, the result of dividing and cutting his original single manuscript.

Shadow Country reunites the three novels into one, the dark and compelling tale of a man who was a respected entrepreneur, a fond husband and father — and perhaps a serial murderer.

Matthiessen did not just paste his original version back together. Shadow Country weighs in at a relatively lean 892 pages and reads faster than many books half its length. The rewriting begins in the second paragraph and ranges from micro — a phrase tuned even more finely, a dying man's words cut from two sentences to one — to macro: The second of the book's three portions, corresponding to Lost Man's River, has undergone major changes and been slimmed from 539 pages to 237.

That is not to say the Watson legend has lost any of its impact; quite the contrary. This mighty book is the potent distillation of a tale that was brilliantly told to begin with. Both new readers and fans of the earlier Watson books will find a fresh and fascinating novel.

Shadow Country maintains the structure of the trilogy. Book I gathers many fragments of Watson's story, told by his neighbors, friends and family members in Florida. It's a tour de force of multiple first-person point of view, as Matthiessen gives distinctive voices to characters male and female, white and black, those who fear Watson and those who love him.

Book II is the story of Watson's son Lucius, the youngest child of his second marriage (he had three legal wives and several extralegal ones). A young man when his father dies, Lucius becomes obsessed with understanding why Edgar was gunned down — and who fired the first shot. Written in third person, Book II solves some of the mysteries surrounding Watson while examining the nature of myth and memory.

Book III is told in first person by Watson himself. It stretches from his childhood in South Carolina during the Civil War to the moment of his death, and it is a strange, harrowing and irresistible tale.

Roughly raised amid racial and social hierarchies that are bitterly hollow in the wake of the war, Edgar Watson struggles to make his own place in the world. He is a stunningly complex character: smart, ambitious, astonishingly hard-working, yet haunted by what he calls his "shadow cousin," an alter ego who sometimes emerges when Edgar's pride is challenged, to devastating result.

Matthiessen is writing about one man's life in Shadow Country, but he is also writing about the life of the nation over the course of half a century. Watson's story is essentially the story of the American frontier, of the conquering of wild lands and people, and of what such empires cost.

Most of the book is set in frontier Florida, a Florida virtually unimaginable in our air-conditioned, subdivided century. It is a brutally beautiful wilderness where, just 100 years ago, panthers and red wolves stalked the woods, plume hunters made fortunes wiping out whole species of birds and men like Watson made their own law.

Shadow Country takes us there in unforgettable fashion. Even among a body of work as magnificent as Matthiessen's, this is his great book.

Shadow Country

By Peter


Modern Library, 892 pages, $40

Matthiessen's 'Shadow Country' masterfully reunites Edgar Watson novels 04/12/08 [Last modified: Saturday, April 12, 2008 4:31am]
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