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.