Shadow Country: A Review
This might be the best Western I've ever read.

It's a big one (way too long; fat and wordy like a corrupt Southern lawyer) and technically it is set in Florida. You will be dismissive if you pick it up in a store (zero publicity, shitty cover, smells like an Important Novel, National Book Award: "I haven't read that one -- didn't he used to work for the CIA?"), but this book is all gunsmoke, bullets through hats, and no-good hombres drinking whiskey and making bad choices.

Everybody knows about Westerns. A rotten, lawless sonofabitch goes out West to make trouble and then die. But in "Shadow Country," the rotten, lawless sonofabitch goes West and then comes back East again: hunted and broken, ready to settle down. And that's when the real trouble starts.

This is not Edgar Watson. This is Peter Matthiessen. You need to keep telling yourself that while you read this book.

Peter Matthiessen's "Shadow Country" actually IS everything people claimed about Bolano's "2666": sprawling, epic, illuminating, unhinged, gutsy, twisted, nihilistic, unsettling, damned, poetic, cold-hearted, fiery, prophetic, gripping, and powerful.

It is a master-work by an artist working at the height of their powers, and if you are a writer of fiction, reading it is like watching a terrifying drunk in a bar lazily hit bullseye after bullseye on a dartboard with their switchblade while they smile at your date.


I don't know much in this world, but after reading "Shadow Country," I certainly know everything I could ever want to know about a white man born Edgar Addison Watson, a Florida sugar cane farmer, murderer, serial breeder, slightly-enlightened racist, outlaw, alcoholic, and inventor.

I also feel like I know more about America. And trouble. And family. And mortal sin.

Watson invented the process of painting screen doors with oil to keep the mosquitoes away. He also invented sticking a little window in between the dining room and the kitchen so that food could be more efficiently served (by servants).

But that's not what this book is about. "Shadow Country" is about blood, and it is thick enough to be a murder weapon itself. It is 900 pages of legends: in dialect and out, in first person and in third, spanning two lifetimes, and stretching from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement. "Shadow Country" is the work of twenty years of effort, and is the tightened and collected evolution of three different novels that Matthiessen published separately in the 1990's: "Killing Mr. Watson," "Lost Man's River," and "Bone by Bone."

Matthiessen distilled these novels down from the original fruit (the true history of some cracker fuck who got gunned down by his own damn neighbors) into white lightning, using the palate, process, and patience of a sober bootlegger.

This is a book best consumed in small sips, lest the prose inflame your animal passions and cause you to grab the nearest shotgun and ride out into the cane to take care of a labor organizer who needs killing or to find one of your bastard sons and convince him to motorboat you down to the Keys so you can shoot out the lights in bars and claim the left-behind spouses of the cowards who run away as your rightful property.


"Shadow Country" has three parts.

Part One: "Killing Mr. Watson." Modernism.

This is a collection of narrative islands: short first-person narratives that introduce all the side-characters and tell the story of how Watson showed up in the Everglades, rose to power, and became so notorious for murder, liquor, and savagery that a whole town full of backwoods bushwhackers -- hicks who liked Watson individually but who were also each scared to death of him -- banded together to gun him down, unarmed, as he came into town to collect his wife and kids after a particularly nasty hurricane. "Everyone lies, and the truth is revealed."

Part Two: "Lost Man's Key." Post-Modernism.

Watson's son, a historian, tries to reconstruct Watson's life in order to determine if his old man was as bad as everyone said. The Watson story consumes the historian's life, destroying his ability to make human attachments, and the son falls into a world of trouble with his other siblings, each of whom has their own sick relationship with their father and his legacy. This is a thinly-veiled account of how it must have felt for Matthiessen to research the Watson story and write the definitive book about it, sinking two decades of pain-staking historical research into an otherwise unremarkable historical anecdote. Matthiessen shows where history comes from and the toll it takes on its addicts.

Part Three: "Bone by Bone." Whatever's next.

Here's what you want. This section is as long as the other two parts put together, and is Watson's story in his own words: a complete biographical account from childhood to death, with no sin, lust, fear, or regret left unaccounted for. You never get "what really happened" in history. But you sure can get it in fiction.

Watson doesn't have time for bullshit. The true record is set straight here by this life-loving, life-taking outlaw, and bone by bone, we get a full confession with no damned prevarication and no room for subjective wiggling.

Here's an account of how Watson, with the help of his hired hand Black Frank and a young psychopath named Leslie Cox, ambushed Sam Tolen, a fat drunk who stole the rights to Watson's north Florida land by seducing Watson's mentally-retarded cousin:

"With a shrill yelp, Sam floundered sideways to get behind the thrashing horse as he swung his gun up, but even before he got it to his shoulder, he despaired, flinging it away like something burning. On his knees, he raised his hands.

"Shoot!" Frank ordered Leslie, furious. Frank had been furious before he got there, wanting no part of this damned business, but no matter how often I explained this to [Leslie] later, the black man would never be forgiven for that contemptuous order although it did the trick. "Right then is when Mist' Sam Tolen knowed he was a goner," Frank reflected later. "That's when I looked away. Ain't decent to watch a man afeared as that. Just plain embarrassin."

My old adversary and nemesis had sought and found me through the thorns and rails. Too scared to speak, he whimpered like a pup. Those last whimpers burned a hole into my heart, and I cursed Leslie for it, after all my warnings that these things must be done quick or not at all. In that instant, he pulled the trigger and Sam's face ruffled up bright red, bug eyes obliterated. Spun half around and down by a charge of buckshot at close range, he gave only a few short kicks as if trying to run while lying there face down. The body sprawled on the clay road, snuffling up blood-spattered dust like a slaughtered hog."

Watson is a core carnivore among lesser jackals. But a killer just the same.


"Shadow Country" is an answer to the entire project of deconstruction. Nowadays, we all have an ingrained reverence for subjective opinions and are perfectly happy to believe that life is all about your perspective.

But Matthiessen says: "Hell yes, there is such a thing as truth. It's just so fucking awful, you'd rather not know."


Peter Matthiessen got started as a writer after quitting his job working for the CIA to run the Paris Review and to become an environmentalist. He has ended his career with this novel about the choices we make and the ways they define us, as if his life was not enough of an object lesson.

"Shadow Country" is a great book. It is a disturbing piece of fiction that haunts and hits, and it is triumph of stripped-down prose that teaches the lesson that if there is hope for humanity, it doesn't rest in the soul of the people (which is fucked), nor in the soul of the land (which can neither redeem nor purify), but in the soul of the story.

In the shadow of the people on the land. In the mystery of the grave.

Posted by miracle on Thu, 23 Jul 2009 04:32:55 -0400 -- permanent link

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