Tuesday, April 13, 2010

But first, an astonishment & a caution

An astonishment is what I was calling it 300 pages from the end, and now that I've finished reading Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen I'm sticking to my guns. Guns? Guns and guts and killing must be in the front of my brain at the moment, because this novel is steeped in them, in dirt and death, which is not usually a good thing by my lights. Except in this case it is. Because it is displayed in the service of truth. Matthiessen serves up great gobs of truth in Shadow Country, most of it exceedingly ugly. As it has to be. For this country is an awful place, with an awful history, built on the most awful deeds. The worst extremes of racism, the traffic in human beings, chattel slavery, lynchings and all manner of despicable violence, Klan terrorism, Jim Crow, the genocide of the indigenous inhabitants, the utter subjugation of women, rape, misogyny. The most vile, unrestrained despoilation of the land, water, flora and fauna; the killing off in swift fashion of entire populations of species of birds and fish and trees; the draining, cutting, paving, stripping. Every awfulness, every crime, every deed that sickens and disgusts you as you read, all of it was integral to the advancement of U.S. capitalism. And none of it was ever considered a crime if it was committed by or on behalf of a capitalist and resulted in the further enrichment of the capitalist class.

All this happened in a terrible land called Florida. Of course it happened throughout this country with only slight local variation, but this story takes place primarily in southwest Florida, in the late 19th and early 20th century. Astonishment: an astonishing achievement, this laying bare of the rot on which this country rests.

There are lots of other impressive aspects to Shadow Country. Literarily, stylistically, it is a wild ride, wildly realized. The narrative grabs you and won't let go. I've described it above in broad terms because I believe that this is a book of grand ambition that is really "about" large, important issues and ideas, about history, about racism, about greed, about the destruction of the natural environment in the service of capitalism--but at the same time, there is a real story here, grippingly told, the story of one E.J. Watson, an actual figure in Everglades history known variously as a scoundrel, outlaw, killer, developer, farmer, sugar cane trader and so on. In Matthiessen's telling, Watson is at once less mythic than the figure of local legend and more complex. He is anything but a hero. He does despicable deeds, speaks despicable words. But he doesn't do exactly what everyone else says he does, and this is one of the novel's accomplishments, to place the twisty, twisted path of Watson's life in context. Watson's real story, as Matthiessen fictionalizes it, is not better, braver, truer, more virtuous than the tales that come to be told and believed about him. But the real story has many more dimensions, which come clear as the context is ever more fully explored in the course of the book's nearly 900 pages.

There are a myriad of literary wonders. There are three sections, with Watson's story each time retold from a different angle. First, a sort of Greek chorus of alternating voices, each telling his or her own version Rashomon-like; this first section,which literally begins with a bang as a mob of shooters kills Watson, is about 200 pages, and it's disorienting and confusing but worth wading through. Next, in a rich, moving, and constantly surprising central section, one of Watson's sons tries to piece together a clearer vision of his father. Finally, the story is told in the main character's own voice, right up to the seconds after he's shot as his life ends. There are nearly endless surprises, on nearly every page.

However, let me say this to anyone considering reading Shadow Country: this is a book full of terrible words. The most terrible word, the n word, is repeated many many times, so I must make this clear and warn anyone reading this. The novel is laced with violent racist acts and racist language, so please take this into account in deciding whether to read it. It's very hard to take. Anyone who doesn't want to subject herself/himself to this should not.

I think this may be the first novel I've ever read through to the end that is this replete with such racist language. The reason I kept going was that it seemed to me that it is used in the service of truth. This is what it was like, Matthiessen seems to be saying, look at this, think about it, face it. There are actually many passages where the characters, white and Black and Native, talk about the words, which words to use, why, why not--the national question, relations between and among them, is not something they ignore or can ignore, not when it is a matter of life and death, a matter of profit and loss, property and poverty. It is everywhere in this novel, the matter of nationality, color, race, it is interwoven in everyone's lives, in every question of relations and love, work and wages. As it was, as it is.

This is one rough trip. For me, I think it was right to take it.