Shadow Country (Book II) ~ Peter Matthiessen

shadow-countryAt the end of Book I, we are introduced to Nell Dyer, and more closely to Lucius Watson. From the first-person voices of Book I, Matthiessen moves us to a third person narrative for Book II. Lucius Watson’s story is outlined to begin book II, as well as his relationship with Nell Dyer. Shortly, Lucius returns to the area to begin his investigations. He wants to find the true story of his father, so he has assembled a list. His quest is the search for “the truth” about the whole episode . “The truth” as usual, is a bit slippery, and he finds it many times- in many versions. I guess when Truth is like a chameleon, it becomes Myth.

One by one, from varied sources – cryptic gossip and sly woman talk, drunk blurtings – Lucius learned the names of every armed man present in that October dusk at Smallwood’s landing and in most cases the extent of his participation. New information gave him reason to eliminate a name or add another or simply refine the annotations that kept his list scrupulous and up-to-date.  With its revisions and deletions, comments and qualifications, ever more intricate and complex the thing took on a whole different significance, as what had begun as a kind of morbid game evolved into a kind of obsession.

When finally Lucius is jolted out of his stasis and moves up the coast, he resumes his studies and writing. When he publishes his history of the area, he is ready to tackle the bio of his father. And here, PM gets at another of his  major themes  – the power of myth and myth-making. The proposal reads in part:

This bold energetic man of rare intelligence and enterprise must also be understood as a man undone by his own deep flaws. He was known to drink to grievous excess, for example, which often turned him volatile and violent. On the other hand, his evil repute has been wildly exaggerated by careless journalists and their local informants, who seek to embellish their limited acquaintance with a “desperado”; with the result that the real man has been virtually entombed by tale and legend which since his death has petrified as myth.

Seems to me that Matthiessen’s mission is much like the one Lucius stated for himself:

…to discover the hard truths and reconstitute E. J. Watson and restore him to humankind as a paleontologist might reconstruct some primordial being known only from a few scattered shards of bone.

Matthiesson’s “new rendering” is analogous to Lucius’ reconstitution and reconstruction.

At one point, Lucius is visiting the Collins clan and the talk turns to EJ Watson’s sister, Minnie:

“In later life, she had this malady that doctors used to call ‘American nervousness,’ ” Hettie said. “Paregoric was prescribed which contains opium and it seems she was susceptible.” Hettie supposed it was her drug addiction that caused her family to turn its back on the poor soul. It seemed more merciful to help her pretend she wasn’t there than to struggle to include her in household life.

My father was a musician on Miami Beach. During the ‘off-season’, the band would often get a gig  somewhere else: Cape Cod (the old Mayflower Hotel in Plymouth); Pinehurst, North Carolina – even then a summer playground for the golf and resort crowd. As a young boy, the rest of the family would often visit my mother’s home in Columbus, Georgia, where her mother still lived. My grandmother had had stomach issues for some time, and by then was more or less permanently looped on paregoric. Paregoric was nearly half-alcohol cut with anise and a 2% shot of morphine (from opium.) I was  in my early teens at the time, or perhaps younger. She always had a bottle of the stuff clutched in her hands,  or a glass of crushed ice filled with it. Cut with a little Coke. CoCola, she called it. Not “cut” may not exactly be  the right word, because back then (the mid fifties) Coke may still have had some residual opium in the formula.  A double shot, so to speak.  I’m not even sure if the ‘goric required a prescription. It probably did, though. I can still remember the smell of it …a slightly sweetness with a minor noxious air to it. Maybe the anise oil is what I recall. Sure calmed the tummy though.paregoric

There’s a powerful sketch of racism in “The Carver” (pgs 414-418). But racism in the South always was and always will be more complicated than racism in the  North. There’s a section (North) in Book II that captures this very well. (pgs 434-441).

I used to tease my mother (when I was a teenager) about her drawl, and in the sixties, whenever the subject of race came up, I’d get on my soap box. When she and my father were both working, my mom would run baskets of laundered clothes over to ‘colored town’ for ironing.

My granma had a ‘colored boy’ who’d come around once a week in the summer to cut the grass, trim the bushes. Name of Fletcher, who was no ‘boy’ – 65 if a day. Fletcher was a one-armed black man who was a sight to see, humping that push mower. Never did know how Fletcher came to lose that arm.

The other prime concern of PM, and this cuts across all his writings (fiction and non-fiction alike) is his concern for the ecology of place. And ultimately the planet. On his search, Lucius’ visited Bill House for his version of events. House had recently  moved to a new development. Besides Houses’ wonderful shake his head, what’s to become of the wilderness  comments, there’s the economic familiarity that sounds like current events.

House contemplated the battered landscape as if to fathom the mystery of its great ugliness.  “They’re clearin these ‘retirement estates’ way out in the swamp-and-overflowed, sellin most of ’em by mail order. Florida boom! Dredge out ditches, call ’em bayous and canals, build up some high ground with the fill, call that prime waterfront property. All you need is some old swamp and you’re in business.”

He waved at the wasteland. “I kinda looked forward to them musky smells and swamp cries in the night. Owls, y’know, bull gators roarin in the springtime. I reckon you heard that sound up Chatham River.” House turned back into his doorway.  “We won’t be hearin no bull gators, let alone panthers, cause them developers ain’t never goin to stop dredgin and drainin, strippin off cypress to make room for all them Yankees. God-a-mighty! Smashed this forest flat, never put aside no money to clean up. And now the boom is dyin down and hard times startin up so they can’t find no more fools to buy more swamp; they run out of money and before I could back out of the whole deal, I run out, too.” He rapped the thin wall of his new house. “You ever need a retirement estate, I know where you could buy one pretty cheap.”

As an elementary school student in Miami – this must have been at the William Jennings Bryant Elementary School, about Grade 4, 1955 or so) we kids were all tasked to write a letter to out State Senator…seem to recall the name Bill Smathers…to save the Key Deer. The movement was started  by an 11-year-old boy in 1947. Teachers picked it up and the effort continues to this day (there are maybe a few hundred still left.key-deer-in-red-mangroves

At the end, Lucius accepts his brother Rob’s death, (re)buries his father’s remains, and burns the manuscript of his fathers biography. On the other hand, PM has taken his manuscript (published as three separate novels) and mended them back together. Breathes new life into them. Saved them from the embers.

Read Part III


1 Comment

Filed under Books, Sketches

One response to “Shadow Country (Book II) ~ Peter Matthiessen

  1. Pingback: Shadow Country (Book I) ~ Peter Matthiessen « Chazz W

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