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on January 4, 2009
For nearly twenty years I've been obsessed by Edgar Watson, the Everglades Planter known as "Bloody Watson" and "Emperor Watson" for the 50-odd murders attributed to him by a century of legend and myth.

Peter Matthiessen was way more obsessed than me, writing four novels about Watson. I read the first in 1990. The last just this past December. It, Shadow Country, won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2008. It is Matthiessen's masterpiece, and I have no qualms saying it is among the top novels in all of American literature, a book I would stack against Moby Dick, Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Gravity's Rainbow, White Noise ....

Matthiessen does several important things that won my admiration. First, his voice, his writing, is a very spare, zen language that is short on embellishment but poetic in its nature. Second, the structure that he brings to the narrative is very inventive. The first part of the novel is the tale of Watson's death at the hands of more than two dozen of his neighbors who gun him down after a hurricane in the fall of 1910, hitting him with 33 bullets. That part, which formed the basis of Killing Mister Watson, is an succession of reminiscences by those on that Chokoloskee beach, a backwater Rashomon that bring some amazing vernacular, history, and drama. The book starts with the killing -- and what follows is an utter mind-twister of why Watson was killed.

The second part of the novel is the story of one of Watson's sons, Lucius, who tries to reassemble the facts and seperate them from the myths about his father, who, among other legends, was the reputed murderer of outlaw queen Belle Starr. Lucius compiles a list of those on that beach, a list which makes him a very suspicious figure to the survivors and their descendants, back-water plume and gator poachers who would prefer that Lucius not be asking so many questions. The detective work, the sheer genealogical complexity of Lucius' quest is a reminder to the reader -- this is a true story. Matthiessen's research and attention to detail would shame a historian.

And finally, the true masterpiece in the three tales is the first person account by Watson himself, a story that begins with his childhood in the post-Civil War Reconstruction of South Carolina (in the most violent county of the state), and his subsequent abuse at the hands of a drunken white trash father, his flight to north Florida and from there a descent into the American frontier, and Watson's lonely home on Chatham Bend, the only house between Chokoloskee and Key West, literally the end of America.

Read it. Matthiessen won my respect decades ago with Far Tortuga, The Snow Leopard, Men's Lives, but Shadow Country is my candidate for the Great American Novel.
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on August 2, 2016
I love this book. Its not a fast or particularly easy read, but it keeps you engaged and wanting to keep reading.

I like to get invested in a book, and this is one of those. The characters are complex and this is a multi-generational saga telling a fictionalized account of the "Watson Legend". I love the descriptions of the "outlaw" life of the pioneers of the ten thousand islands in South West Florida during the late 19th and early 20th century.
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on May 5, 2016
I did not read the original trilogy authored by Matthiessen, but I commend him on his Shadow Country novel based on the intriguing fictional portrayal of the real life character, E.J. Watson. Fascinating trip from the Civil War through the Jim Crow South with brutal descriptions of racial behavior to all non-whites (blacks, Seminole Indians, mulattos, etc.). The migration of Southern state pioneers into the swamplands of Southwest Florida and their survival in the hot, humid water lands beyond the Everglades is just as daunting as pioneer treks and settlements into the Western frontiers decades earlier. The way the same story is told from three different perspectives creates a build-up of anticipation to know more of the characters introduced earlier in the book. The images and memories this book paints will be with any reader for years to come.
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on March 15, 2016
Peter Matthiessen's Shadow Country is an extraordinary literary achievement by one of this country's best authors of recent times. Enormous in scope as well as page count, it is really three books in one. Book one is told variously by the people who "knew" him (and ultimately killed him). His estranged son, an historian determined to learn and share the "truth" of his legendary father narrates Book Two. The third book is told from the viewpoint of the man himself, the enigmatic, mercurial E.J. Watson, who is an historic figure with many volumes written about his real-life exploits in the Ten Thousand Islands region of southwest Florida.

I had read "Killing Mr. Watson" many years ago, and I have always regarded Matthiessen's writing to be exemplary. He was one of those authors who had the skill to write beautiful prose, meticulously researched and in accurate vernacular, liberally populated by sentences, passages and paragraphs of such clarity and beauty that one simply has to read them over and over again. Even so, I was left with many unanswered questions when I finished that first volume, and the book never fully left my mind.

"Shadow Country", at more than 1,400 pages, is, I believe, the author's own attempt to answer those questions for himself as well as for us, the fortunate readers.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
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on October 18, 2016
The prolific and immensely talented actor James Best (most famous for his role as Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazard) owned an acting school in Hollywood for many years. One of his admonitions to any of his students who happened to get cast as a villain was, “After you rape all the women and murder all the children, make sure you pat the horse on the ass before you leave the scene.” It was a shorthand way of saying, ‘No matter how loathsome your character, find a way to give him a humanizing dimension.’ It’s excellent advice for actors and writers both, and it is why I have a problem with Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country.
I have no proof of this, but my impression is that Americans are more prone to romanticize their villains and make heroes of them than people of other nations. Think of the violent criminals of the post-Civil War days: Frank and Jesse James, the Younger brothers, John Wesley Hardin, Billy the Kid, Butch and Sundance, the Daltons, Tom Horn, and a score of others, less well known, but also romanticized gunslingers. I haven’t even bothered to include some of the famous names that were nominally considered lawmen, but who moved back and forth across the line between law and crime as it suited their purposes. (The Earps, Wild Bill Hickok, Pat Garrett, Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday… The list is lengthy.) Moving along into the twentieth century, think of Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel, Machine Gun Kelley, Pretty Boy Floyd, the glorification of the Mafia generally in books and on film. These were all murderous, vicious, amoral, and narcissistic thugs, but every single one of the names above has had at least one book written about him and been featured in a movie, and most of those names have had multiple books written and multiple movies made about them, and some have passed into legend, forming part of the mythology of America.
Enter Peter Matthiessen with his monumental and massive (892 pages) portrayal of one of the bloodiest and most ruthless and little known members of that legendary group.
Edgar Artemas (middle name later changed to Jack) Watson, nicknamed “Bloody” Watson for reasons that scarcely need explaining, was a pioneer of one of the least known, least appreciated, and least understood wilderness areas remaining in America at the end of the nineteenth century.
The extreme southwestern coast of Florida is known as the Ten Thousand Islands, islands here including any little islet, regardless of suitability for habitation. While most of those little tangled islets are nothing more than mangroves growing on submerged oyster beds, they have two very desirable qualities. One is they provide an ecologically rich buffer zone for the ecologically rich coast proper. The other is they provide excellent cover for people who might prefer their activities to be screened from the prying eyes of the law-abiding world. At the end of the nineteenth century, the Ten Thousand Islands (the name is a great exaggeration; there are nowhere near ten thousand of them) was a conveniently remote and inaccessible area for people who might be of great interest to law enforcement. And nothing has changed in over one hundred years; when I worked down there in the early eighties, the area was considered one of the primary ports of entry for the illegal drug trade, and I suspect little has changed in the past thirty-five years.
Briefly, Edgar Watson was one of those who found the area to be convenient, being a person of interest in various other parts of the country for the reasons that led to his “Bloody” nickname. Like so many other semi-legendary characters, like the islands themselves, his soubriquet was probably a great exaggeration. It owed its genesis to rumors that he was the man who killed the notorious Belle Starr while he was hiding out in the “Indian Territory” (now Oklahoma). There is no doubt that he killed at least several people, but probably nowhere near as many as are attributed to him. There is also no doubt that he raised sugar cane and vegetables very successfully in the Ten Thousand Islands. After that, much is conjecture.
Shadow Country is Peter Matthiessen’s rich imagining of Edgar Watson’s life, but unfortunately, Matthiessen ignored Jimmy Best’s advice: his Edgar Watson is loathsome in every single way you can imagine and admirable in none. Yes, as written by Matthiessen, Mr. Watson is highly intelligent, but so what? There are highly intelligent psychopaths in every prison in America, but intelligence doesn’t make them people you want to hang out with. Yes, as written by Matthiessen, Mr. Watson is ambitious and has the foresight to see the potential in swampy, mosquito-infested land, but every crooked politician in the country has ambition and foresight, and those qualities don’t make any of them the kind of person you want to spend 892 pages with.
Mr. Watson’s bad qualities (murderous violence, treachery, the kind of unspeakable racism that regards blacks as disposable non-humans, brutality toward his own children, infidelity, sexual predation of every pretty thing who crosses his path regardless of age or willingness, sexual brutality toward even the women he purports to love, an inclination to justify his murders and treachery by saying other people do it too, alcoholism and a host of other self-destructive traits) so outweigh whatever miniscule and fleeting good impulses he might have had that it was only Matthiessen’s exquisite writing that kept me forging on to the end. If I want to hang out with people like that, I can find them in any city in the country. Hell, there’re a lot of them on Capitol Hill. And I frankly got tired of the litany of killings; the bodies kept piling up without remorse or even learning from experience on the part of Mr. Watson. Except for a brief interlude as a child, Mr. Watson starts out bad and progresses only as far as worse.
Originally written as a much longer trilogy, Shadow Country is condensed down into three connected books in a single volume. The first and last of the these work the best.
The first is told in a wide range of voices and from a wide range of different points of view, all of them discussing Mr. Watson and his exploits from their singular perspective. And here is one of the areas where Matthiessen is unsurpassed: like Twain, Faulkner, and Cormac McCarthy, Matthiessen has the rare ability to catch the real and natural vernacular of uneducated people even as he achieves something almost like poetry.
The third book is told from Mr. Watson’s point of view, and while that doesn’t make his actions any prettier, it does provide a fascinating portrait of a man almost completely devoid of empathy, compassion, understanding, or any other trace of humanity. He may be despicable, but he is the personification of raw courage and self-reliance. He never whines or shows any more self-pity than he does pity to various people he uses and uses up for his own ends. It’s an intriguing masterpiece of writing, and in the last three or four pages, Matthiessen even managed to engage my sympathies for this despicable man.
The middle book, told from the point of view of one of Mr. Watson’s sons, is the most revealing yet least successful. The boy is educated, so he lacks the vernacular poetry of the more uneducated people in the story, and—probably in the interests of time and brevity—Matthiessen has other people, some of them total strangers to the boy, overly eager to tell him the unvarnished truth of everything they know about his father. And yet, in Matthiessen’s gifted hands, truth becomes as tenuous and slippery as it is in real life.
I have one other cavil, one in which I am not alone: covering over half a century and the entire southeastern quadrant of the country, not including occasional forays into the past, there are sooooooooooooo many characters I had to keep referring back to the genealogy just to keep Mr. Watson’s family members and multiple wives straight. More irritating and more to the point, there are sooooooooooooo many ancillary characters, some of whom appear briefly in book one and don’t reappear until book three, that I would really have appreciated a list of all the dramatis personae. Or perhaps not: I’m willing to do that for War and Peace because I find Russian names confusing and hard to remember, but I shouldn’t have to do it for Shadow Country.
What kept me plowing on, more than anything else, is Matthiessen’s felicitous writing and the real hero of his story: the beautiful, fragile, vulnerable southern Florida wilderness, a wilderness as abused and doomed as any of Mr. Watson’s many women.
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on January 3, 2017
I struggled to get through this book. I had high expectations based on the reviews but I didn't like it. It was hard to follow in the beginning but then the author repeats the story from different perspectives which eventually helps understand what is going on. I finally gave up 65% of the way through the book. While the storyline is based on a true legendary character from the Everglade region, I did not find the author's rendition of the story engaging.
the description of that region of SW Florida was interesting - perhaps the best part of the book
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on April 7, 2011
I almost never put down a book without finishing, but I just can't slog through this thing. I've picked it up & put it down I don't know how many times trying to get through it, but I just can't. Don't care about the characters, don't have enough interest in them to like or dislike them, have a hard time keeping whose realated to who straight, & that makes it even harder. It got so many good reviews I was really thinking it should be wonderful, but it's just not coming through for me.
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on August 17, 2014
Matthiessen may be my favorite author, (At Play in the Fields of the Lord is a masterpiece) but even though this is an extreme condensation of the thousand-plus-page trilogy, it is still long. The story is essentially a biography -- with fictional details -- of the very bright but murderous Edgar Watson. Matthiessen tells the story from the viewpoint of almost every character, including Watson, whereas three or four would have been more than sufficient. I asked the author while at an event in Florida about the book. He was almost angry that I had only read one of the trilogy -- essentially an occasionally interesting ancestry search of the Watson family -- which made immediately clear to me that Watson's life was a deeply personal, thirty-year obsession of Matthiessen's that he unreasonably thought everyone should share.

That being said, Shadow Country is filled with creative, "you're-there" description, (which made the description in my novel, Mere Being, seem elementary) minute detail and fascinating characters. I've haunted every island and river by kayak and on foot in the book's Southwest Florida setting for many years. and the picture is accurate. It's worth the read if just for the many taut narratives that occur regularly.

Even though Peter lived a long, adventurous and fruitful life, his recent death is a sad loss to the literary and and natural worlds.
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on April 25, 2010
Peter Matthiessen has taken on a strange historic character, Edgar J. (nee A.) Watson, who built the only plantation house along the Everglades coast in Florida, and told his story from three different directions, in an amazing tour-de-force of a novel. The three sections originally sold as separate books, but then were combined as originally conceived into a huge 900-page whole. The first book, "Killing Mister Watson" starts at the end, with the 1910 communal killing that ended Watson's life, told from the perspective of 12 different characters in 52 short chapters. All the perspectives are indirect; none of the principal characters speaks for himself. The second book, "Lost Man's River", published seven years later, tells the story of Watson's son, who has led a rough life over 15 years but managed to earn a Ph.D. in history and who decides to write his father's story by contacting the remaining characters from the events and trying to reconstruct the truth. The third book, "Bone by Bone" originally published two years after the second, then tells the rough-and-tumble life of Edgar Watson from his own perspective, as reconstructed and explained by Peter Matthiessen.

Matthiessen is a gifted and famous nature writer as well as novelist, and the integration of nature into the action and perspective of the book is wonderful. The first book, in particular, is astounding in its sensitivity to the characters as real people. I found it to be amazing reading. The second book, trying to bridge the split personality of a hard-drinking, marginal-living Ph.D. was less satisfying. The final book, at last explaining what was hinted at in the first book, starts off with characters that are difficult to believe, but since they are historic in basis the exposition is necessary. Once Watson is past his youth, his character is believable as he faces impossible situations over-and-over, always seeming to be unlucky and misunderstood as he struggles to put down roots and make a place for himself in late 19th and early 20th Century Florida. Matthiessen has taken a minor historic character, one who was simply trying to be more than ordinary, and used the records of his life to explore the nature of guilt and responsibility in a society struggling with its own failures.

"Shadow Country" well deserved the National Book Award it received in 2008. A truly great and satisfying historical novel.
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on August 27, 2013
I had heard of this book during a week in the Everglades, and made a note to try to get a good price on it on on my return home. I did, and I read it endlessly until I reached the finish. It was especially meaningful because, having been in the area, I recognized so many of the places the author mentioned. The same story is told twice: Once from the viewpoint of those who know, or have known, the central character, "Mr. Watson" and then from Mr. Watson's own point of view. During the first part of the book you learn to hate him; but by the time you've read the second part, you (almost) have sympathy for him, although his destructive acts have hurt so many people. Yes, he did become a notorious outlaw, but how much can we blame on the events of his youngest days, how much on the wild character of the Florida frontier at the turn of the century, and how much is just inexplicable. Where there is no formal law, law is taken into the hands of those in residence. The author is a master at writing an 891 page saga that keeps you page turning despite its daunting size. Highly recommend it if you like insights into the motivations of characters and an author who doesn't skirt the fury and bloodiness of the times, be it to man or bird or beast.
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