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Originally published Friday, April 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Epic "Shadow Country" revises Everglades legend

Peter Matthiessen has devoted his career to writing about the magnificent intricacies of nature — and the ham-handedness of human nature in attempting to deal with it. In the true-life story of Watson in the Everglades, Matthiessen saw an allegory about the tensions between the American landscape and the American psyche.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Shadow Country: A New Rendering of the Watson Legend"

by Peter Matthiessen

Modern Library, 902 pp., $35

Edgar J. Watson seemed like the right type of man to take on the Florida Everglades. He was ruthless, shrewd, charismatic and unafraid of hard work. In fact, as the brutalized son of a drunken Civil War veteran, Watson had grown into a man who was intimately acquainted with violence, and afraid of very little. At the turn of the last century, this real-life sugar planter had become a legend in his own time. Folks said that in his lust for land and fortune, he was responsible for murders from Oklahoma to the Keys, and Watson didn't bother to discourage the rumors.

But nervous neighbors don't make good neighbors. Watson came to a violent end when the increasingly worried locals banded together and killed him in a hail of bullets. They claimed self-defense. Watson's demise is the starting point for Peter Matthiessen's massive novel, "Shadow Country."

Matthiessen, a National Book Award winner ("The Snow Leopard"), has devoted his career to writing about the magnificent intricacies of nature — and the ham-handedness of human nature in attempting to deal with it. In the true-life story of Watson in the Everglades, Matthiessen saw an allegory about the tensions between the American landscape and the American psyche. His response was to develop a sprawling work of fiction, with Watson figuring as the boisterous but diseased heart of the story. Because of its length, the manuscript originally was divided into three books. "Killing Mister Watson," "Lost Man's River" and "Bone by Bone" were published in 1990, 1997 and 1999, respectively.

But Matthiessen was unsatisfied with that presentation, and he returned to the story, reworking the text and collapsing the time frame, to deliver a concentrated version of the trilogy — if you can call 902 pages "concentrated" — that now is "Shadow Country." The tale still is presented in three distinct sections, and it both begins and ends with the violent death of Edgar J. Watson. It is not the event itself, but the motivations behind it, that Matthiessen is interested in exploring.

So in Book I of "Shadow Country," he recounts Watson's death in the prologue and spends the rest of the time braiding together the voices and points of view of a dozen people who moved within Watson's sphere of influence. From Watson's daughter to the disgruntled neighbors and the callow sheriff, everybody has a take on the enigmatic presence who had impacted their lives.

Matthiessen is uncanny in channeling these characters, although readers may be daunted by the thorny tangle of in-laws, outlaws and other uneasy relations all struggling to stake their own claims on the vermin-ridden Florida frontier.

Book II, told in the third person, wraps around the quest of Watson's youngest surviving son to get to the bottom of his father's killing. Investing (and risking) his life in researching his larger-than-life parent, Lucius Watson interviews many of the characters introduced in Book I and uncovers corrosive family secrets that both explain and indict his father.

Book III presents yet another version of Watson's life story. But this time it is related, described and justified by none other than Edgar J. himself.

"Shadow Country" is a magnum opus. Matthiessen is meticulous in creating characters, lyrical in describing landscapes, and resolute in dissecting the values and costs that accompanied the development of this nation.

But having said all that, I also must add that a story that is rehashed and reexamined for 900 pages does get to feel interminable.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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