We gave it a D
Ever since his days as a founding editor of The Paris Review, Peter Matthiessen has embodied the role of writer as adventurer and moral crusader. Throughout his long and estimable career — whether trekking the Himalayas in The Snow Leopard, pursuing the great white shark in Blue Meridian, championing the cause of the American Indian Movement in In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, or writing of men at sea in his novel Far Tortuga — Matthiessen has engaged his prodigious energy and vast ambition defending all that is remote from and imperiled by the relentless sprawl of modern civilization.
What a surprise then to paddle one’s way through the mangrove swamps of Killing Mister Watson — a documentary novel about the career of Edgar J. Watson, a legendary desperado/real estate mogul in southwestern Florida around the turn of the century — and discover that this time out, Matthiessen has gotten hopelessly lost.
Slain by an outraged and terrified mob of his neighbors on the novel’s opening pages, Watson haunts their tellings and retellings of the terrible deed. Exactly what it is that the author finds so fascinating about the man, however, gets buried underneath the weight of the novel’s cumbersome literary machinery. Accompanied by a lot of vogueish rhetoric about how writing the ”true story” about a mythical figure like Watson can be almost as difficult as writing the truth about a figure of whom almost nothing is known, the story is assembled in bits and pieces from a dozen or so narrators, newspaper clippings, and fragments from local histories.
A wanted man — who may or may not have fled the Oklahoma territory after murdering outlaw queen Belle Starr — Watson no sooner stakes his claim in the Florida wilderness than persons whose existence he finds inconvenient begin to die. But the evidence is inevitably circumstantial, and Watson manages to accrue a considerable fortune and even a degree of respectability. Unfortunately, the author’s decision to kill off Watson in the first chapter implies a mysterious significance to the man that the novel never delivers. Imagine the Thomas Sutpen of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! as Ted Bundy and you’ve got Watson cold.
With the evident intention of recasting the American frontier experience as nightmare, Matthiessen simply got in way over his head. In this book at least he lacks the stylistic gifts to sustain the reader’s interest. With the exception of the dead man’s charmingly deluded daughter, who is given to fatuous prating about ”our strange dear fierce Scots Highlands hothead, who sometimes drinks too much and gets in trouble,” all of the novel’s first- person narrators speak in a witless pseudorustic twang that can only remind readers of how much better they’ve seen it done. Not just by Mark Twain and Faulkner, but by Charles Portis, Donald Harington, or any of a half dozen other contemporary novelists.
As one might expect, the single impressive aspect of Killing Mister Watson is the author’s well-known ability to evoke the natural landscape of South Florida, a ”rainy and mosquito-ridden labyrinth of mangrove islands and dark tidal rivers was all but uninhabited, despite the marvelous abundance of its fish and game.” Despite (or perhaps because of) making his home on Long Island, Matthiessen has long been attracted to the lost paradise/noble savage view of wild places. His descriptions of ”plume hunters” shooting to pieces whole rookeries of egrets and parrots to furnish the trade in ladies’ hats could bring a tear to the eye of a New York transit cop. ”This west part,” one character says, ”is more lonesome than it ever was, cause the big animals and birds are mostly gone. Used to call this place God’s country, and we still do, cause nobody but God would want no part of it.”
But no amount of sermonizing can overcome this novel’s imaginative failures. If Killing Mister Watson is not the worst book by a ”name” author in 1990, it’s going to be a very long year.