Wednesday, May 31, 2023

the last book I read

Killing Mister Watson by Peter Matthiessen.

Welcome to the south-west Florida coast. A constantly-shifting landscape of sandbars, mangrove swamps, shallow rivers and islands. The sort of place that's hard to travel around without a suitable boat and extensive local knowledge, and even then one good cathartic hurricane can change everything. That river mouth you wanted to make use of to get to the sea? Yeah, that's way over yonder now. The island you wanted to visit? Gone. And the people on it? They're gone too.

So, as you might imagine, any ideas of property rights over any of the bits of low-lying land here are elastic at best, and even if they were agreed upon, who's going to enforce them? As a consequence, as you might also imagine, this is an ideal place for anyone who wants to discreetly lose themselves somewhere beyond the usual range of law enforcement. It's not a holiday camp, though: you've still got to be prepared to put the work in to build yourself a shelter and scratch some sort of a living out of the soil. But you may find that when it comes, as it inevitably will, to enforcing your own claim to the bit of land you lay claim to in the event of disputes, and maybe to extending your claims to other pieces of land already claimed by others, that a certain elasticity of morals is actually quite helpful, and that it may just come down to being prepared to do what the other guy wouldn't

Into this environment comes Edgar Watson, a man - in common with quite a few of his co-residents of the area - with a slightly murky past that he doesn't necessarily welcome close questioning about. He's acquired the claim on a decent-sized patch of land down at Chatham Bend and has some ambitious ideas about building a house, clearing the land, growing sugar cane and selling the syrup. All of which is just dandy with the neighbours, who don't object to one of their number showing a bit of zest for private enterprise; after all, a successful business brings job opportunities and the lure of making a bit of money off the back of others' initiative. I mean, some of the rumours about EJ Watson's previous life and exploits, some of which might have contributed to his decision to occupy this remote backwater, are a bit hair-raising, but who knows what the real story is. Watson himself sure isn't telling, and despite being a man of considerable personal charm has a quick way with a knife or a gun brandished in the direction of anyone asking questions which probe too deeply.

But Mr. Watson hasn't done anything untoward since he's been at Chatham Bend, pays his bills on time, and has even brought his wife and children down to join him. True, there have been certain rumours about some of the workers he's had on the island cutting down the sugar cane, including that rather than pay some of them for their labour Watson has arranged for them to meet with some sort of "accident". But the appetite to investigate the disappearance of a few itinerant (and mostly black) cane-cutters is pretty low. The brutal murder inflicted upon Wally and Bet Tucker in a claim dispute over a neighbouring island is less easy to shrug off, especially as Bet was pregnant at the time and some pretty reliable witnesses say Watson's boat was seen in the area, but there's just enough plausible deniability to dissuade the locals from pressing things. Part of the reluctance, of course, derives from the knowledge that any retribution would almost certainly have to be organised by the locals themselves, official law enforcement being located many miles away and almost certainly reluctant to get involved.

But what proof is enough proof? What level of violence against other claim-holders would convince people that they might be next and that some sort of collective action should be taken? Things come to a head when Leslie Cox, a figure from Watson's previous life who seems to exert some sort of hold over him, arrives in the area and is taken on by Watson as a sort of foreman. It's not long before the body count starts to ramp up dramatically, and in the wake of the Florida hurricane of 1910 the locals gather among the devastation only to hear the put-put-put of Mr. Watson's boat, and a terrible and irrevocable decision is arrived at.

In terms of the narrative structure of Killing Mister Watson, this is where we came in: the novel's prologue features the ritual execution of Watson by his former friends and neighbours and what follows is a lengthy flashback. So there's no doubt over what's going to happen at the end (as if the novel's title itself were not enough of a giveaway); what the rest of the novel explores is the gradual realisation by the locals that only their own actions are going to save them. It's also about the terrible glamour of the ruthless psychopath, and the furtive regard that law-abiding people who understand the social contract have for those who choose to ride roughshod over it. It is, it must be said, quite slow to build up to the point where the pivotal violence erupts, and features a varied cast of characters who it's sometimes hard to keep track of. But the evocation of the watery Florida landscape is excellent and Watson's deadly charm rendered in a way that makes it easy to understand how things happened they way they did. The intensely real evocation of a landscape and the characters that fit into it is somewhat reminiscent of The Road Home; as with Jim Harrison, Peter Matthiessen is best known for a film made from one of his earlier works, At Play In The Fields Of The Lord

The main point to make about the events portrayed here is that they did, in some form at least, actually happen, EJ Watson being a real person whose home was substantial enough (and its former owner notorious enough) to warrant inclusion on maps of the area even now. Many of the minor characters were also real people, including storekeeper Ted Smallwood whose premises still exist in Chokoloskee.

Killing Mister Watson is the first book in a trilogy, still available as three separate books but also as a condensed and re-worked single volume, Shadow Country, which won the National Book Award in 2008. As part of the promotional activity for that book here's an interview with Matthiessen from 2008 where he explores some of the book's themes.

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