His epic saga of outlaw and planter E.J. Watson is based on actual events from the rough and heady frontier days on the west coast of Florida. Matthiessen takes us there right after the great hurricane of 1910, to a convoluted coastline where "Day after day, a brooding wind nags at the mangroves, hurrying the unruly tides that hunt through the flooded islands and dark labyrinthine creeks of the Ten Thousand Islands."
He is masterful at describing the thin scattering of rough people settling this convoluted landscape and the thoughtless hunting out of egrets for the plume trade and the slaughter of alligators for belly plates.
His examination of Watson in the voices of scared neighbors talking directly to us and of Watson family members creates a riveting tale.
In a bold and laudable concession that the story of "Bloody" E.J. Watson didn't quite come out right the first time around, Matthiessen has condensed and remastered the sprawling story -- initially published as a trilogy -- into a single volume released this year. Sure, it's 892 pages, and it gives your wrist and hand muscles a workout just by holding it up to your nose, but still it's the single volume Matthiessen had apparently intended all along.
His original version of 18 years ago, he told Charlie Rose during a televised interview in May, "was one novel."
Well, yeah, but at nearly 2,000 pages long, Rose retorts, "Did you really think they would publish it?"
"I didn't have much hope," Matthiessen replies. The single epic work was pulled into Killing Mr. Watson, Lost Man's River and Bone by Bone, leaving "its wretched author ... somehow frustrated and dissatisfied," Matthiessen writes in a confessional introduction to Shadow Country. "The only acceptable solution was to break it apart and re-create it, to ensure that it existed somewhere (if only in a closet) in its proper form."
How many times do we want to pull something back and get it right? How scant is the ledger showing that we have done so.