The one constant theme running through Peter Matthiessen’s many works of fiction and nonfiction is the earth itself. Whether he is writing about his own treks through the remote Himalayas (The Snow Leopard) or spinning tales about the poor fisherfolk of the Caribbean (Far Tortuga), the celebrated 63-year-old American author suffuses his books with the presence of the natural world. His splendid new novel, Killing Mister Watson, reflects the austere beauty of one of North America’s most uninviting landscapes, the Ten Thousand Islands of Florida’s Everglades on the southwest coast. It is an area of punishing heat and destructive storms. In Matthiessen’s vision, it is also a breeding ground for murder and violent revenge. The novel’s bloody events seem to spring mysteriously from the land itself, nourished by what one character calls “these overflowed rain-rotted islands with not enough high ground to build an outhouse, and so many skeeters plaguing you in bad summers you thought you’d took the wrong turn straight to hell.”
Matthiessen’s protagonist, Ed J.
Watson, is loosely based on a late19th-century sugarcane farmer of the same name. Matthiessen’s Watson is an enigma to his neighbors, who spend the entire novel talking about him. In a series of colloquial, first-person reminiscences—offered several decades later—they recall his success as a farmer, his reputation as a murderer and his controversial death at the hands of an avenging posse in 1910. A few of his supporters accept Watson as the generous, courteous man of property that he often appeared to be. Other characters believe the widespread rumors that he originally came to the islands to escape a murder charge. And most suspect he was behind the brutal butchery of two squatters, Wally and Bet Tucker, a married couple who settled on his property.
Not one of the novel’s narrators has actually observed those crimes. But they supply enough
clues to deeply implicate the bearded, hardeyed farmer. One former employee, Henry Thompson, recalls that his boss often acted like a wanted man, pulling a gun on anyone who surprised him. As for the murder of the Tuckers, one family says that they witnessed Watson’s furious promise to force them off his land. And no one but Watson had any motive for killing the popular young couple. By the time three of his own farmhands were murdered
during the great hurricane of 1910, Watson had accumulated such a dark reputation that his neighbors automatically suspected him. Despite a complete absence of hard proof, they banded together to gun him down.
Killing Mister Watson is about evil—about how supposedly innocent people are implicated in its workings. Watson’s neighbors fear him, but they are also deeply fascinated by his power. As Mamie Smallwood comments of her storekeeper husband, Ted: “Being a peaceable good man who hated fighting, he was kind of bewitched by men of violence.” And she remarks acerbically that if Watson
had appeared blowing a bugle and shouting jingoistic slogans, half the men in the islands would have followed him into a patriotic war.
Those observations lend a mythic dimension to Watson, turning him into a complex symbol of American society, with all its hunger for wealth and freedom—and its shadowy fascination with guns and violent death. As one of the island inhabitants, an expatriate Frenchman, cries in broken English after describing how Watson shot at him for a joke, “What is this craziness of guns in this con-try barbare?”
That remark contains the essence of Matthiessen’s pessimism. He portrays a people wedded, perhaps fatally, to violence. And he counterpoints the murder of humans with slaughter of a different kind. As Watson and his fellow developers open up southwest Florida to the roads and railways of progress, hunters massacre its teeming wildlife for profit. One passage describes how they killed 4,500 alligators in one three-week period, stripping off the commercially valuable skin of their bellies while leaving the rest to rot.
The novel implies that, essentially, there is little difference between such wholesale slaughter of animals and the murder of humans: both stem from unbridled egotism that owes allegiance to nothing but itself. To balance that bleak insight, Matthiessen offers only the courage of a few individuals, and the power and subtleties of his art. Killing Mister Watson is a superb novel. It moves with the slow, broad majesty of a Florida river, accumulating detail until it seems to be the very embodiment of the land and people it portrays.
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