Wednesday, April 18, 2018

SHADOW COUNTRY by Peter Matthiessen

Too many characters and too many pages.  That’s my assessment of this ponderous 2008 National Book Award winner.  Each chapter of Book I has a first-person narrator, and I could not keep them or their families or their location in southwest Florida straight, even with the map provided.  The story takes place primarily in an area called the Ten Thousand Islands between the late 1800s and early 1900s.  The main character is Edgar Watson, an imposing but affable man who may also have committed and gotten away with several murders.  He’s a crack shot, and everyone wants to stay on his good side.  I had a hard time just trying to keep up with his wives, mistresses, and offspring.  Book II is a little easier to follow, with third person narration.  Lucius, Watson’s son, is on a mission to set the record straight by penning a biography of his father.  The third and final section is Edgar Watson’s first person narrative in which he defends some of his more heinous actions and shrugs off the rest.  A strange but lethal combination of heartbreak and ambition is his undoing, along with a penchant for hiring known murderers as foremen.  He is unjustly accused of several murders early in life but then seems bent on living up to his undeserved reputation.  He’s smart, resilient, and full of life, but this book is not lively at all.  It paints a bleak picture of life in that area at that time, complete with rampant racism, senseless eradication of wildlife, unbridled violence in the name of progress, and widespread alcoholism.  I appreciate the realism and the writing style, but the novel just crawls along at a snail’s (or alligator’s) pace.

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