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Killing Mister Watson

by Peter Matthiessen
Random House, 372 pp., $21.95

Health and Happiness

by Diane Johnson
Knopf, 260 pp., $19.95

Death is the unspoken hero in this pair of novels, one with its terse, masculine title, the other festively evoking Jane Austen. Diane Johnson’s book is, surprisingly, a comedy about death, how death rules social life, a comedy incongruously set in a hospital. Peter Matthiessen’s novel is about murder, and the consequences of the power to murder, not only the murder of other people, but the murder of thoughts and feelings and the natural world, as a coastal Florida community of small farmers, fishermen, and plume hunters is paralyzed by Mister Watson’s presence, and corrupted in subtle ways. It is also about the macabre glamour with which people can invest a man who has killed. In Matthiessen’s book, the murderer is the prince of a black fairy tale; his crimes, whether they are real or imaginary, have a mesmerizing effect on his community, like the fascination of witnessing achieved desires, happy endings. For Matthiessen’s people, death holds the urgent mystery that sex does for children. They are transfixed by Watson’s casual power over life and death. It makes him seem superhuman.

Killing Mister Watson is based on a murder that occurred at the turn of the century in the swampy Ten Thousand Islands region in Florida, when a band of twenty or so of Mister Watson’s neighbors gunned down their island’s most prominent citizen. The incident took place in Chokoloskee, Florida, bordering the Everglades, a remote, sparsely populated area that was a refuge for many people who had good reasons to leave where they came from. One of Matthiessen’s characters asks, “With all of Florida to choose from, who else would come to these overflowed rain-rotted islands?” Peter Matthiessen researched the book in southwest Florida, interviewing descendants of people involved in the Watson killing, although as he points out in an author’s note, there are “few hard ‘facts’—census and marriage records, dates on gravestones, and the like…. The book is in no way ‘historical,’ since almost nothing here is history.” Matthiessen tells us that “It is my hope and strong belief that this reimagined life contains much more of the truth of Mister Watson than the lurid and popularly accepted ‘facts’ of the Watson legend.”

Matthiessen tells Watson’s story through invented eyewitness accounts, interspersed with a few interludes in the voice of a contemporary historian of the region. The shifting facts from version to version, and the pervasive impression that these men don’t know with any certainty themselves why they killed Watson dramatizes Matthiessen’s sense that history is part illusion. It is a history made even more elusive by its setting in the last frontier of Florida, a place of few records, few conventions, and little law. Matthiessen’s frontier is not an incentive to heroic civilization building, but a place where a limiting and insistent individualism makes community nearly impossible.

The region fits the people who live in it. “To the casual stranger,” writes Matthiessen’s regional historian of the Ten Thousand Islands, “each and every part of the region looks exactly like the rest; each islet and water passage seems but the counterpart of hundreds of others. Even those…familiar with its tortuous channels often get lost…wandering hopeless for days among its labyrinthine ways.” It is as difficult in this part of southern Florida to know who you are as to know where you are. This is a world where the names of places shift with ownership. One piece of land which figures in the book was once an Indian village:

They may have been the last wild band of Mikasuki under Arpeika, called Sam Jones, or perhaps a remnant of the “Spanish Indians.” In the late Eighties Pavioni, as the Indians called it, was occupied by Richard Hamilton, who sold his claim to a Frenchman,…who sold it in turn to a fugitive.

The same piece of land appears and disappears like Brigadoon.

Ancestry is as indeterminate as geography; Richard Hamilton, the head of a clan that lives on property near Watson’s, is sometimes identified as a mulatto, a Choctaw, or Spanish Indian, depending on who is describing him and for what purpose. And the natural character of the region changes too, as during the course of the book, from the 1880s to 1910, the abundant fish and exotic birds of the region are exhausted by sportsmen, their local guides, and plume hunters. Both the wealthy tourists and the locals who guide them to their prey lay waste to the country, sharing a childish assumption that its resources are infinite. A part of the nation is destroyed by its own ignorance and greed. Matthiessen is famous for his sense of place, and the demands of this eerie, elusive country challenge him to a brilliant display of his gifts.

Matthiessen’s hero, E.J. (or E.A., a name he dropped as a fugitive from justice) Watson, was born in South Carolina to a father who was “a sometime state prison employee,” whose brutal behavior broke up his family, driving his wife and children to North Florida. Watson settles in North Florida, eventually marries and has a son; after his first wife’s death, Watson has a fight with her brother over money; he does not admit to the murder of the brother, but a warrant is issued for his arrest, and he escapes by night with his second wife and their children, heading west. He settles “in Injun Country…the first place he felt safe, because there was next to no law.” There he is arrested but never tried for the murder of Belle Starr, “the female Jesse James.” Afterward, he is jailed as a horse thief, “framed by Belle Starr’s horse-thief friends, the way he figured it.” He escapes, and arrives in Florida to farm, after killing a man named Quinn Bass in a saloon. By the time Watson arrives in the town of Chokoloskee in the 1890s—a place he chooses, because in his own words, “South Florida was the last place left where a man could farm in peace and quiet, and no questions asked”—he has ricocheted from one part of the country to the other in flight from murder charges and lynching parties, a “wanted man in Arkansas and also…in north Florida.” His criminal career is complicated and ambiguous; he admits to only one murder, but appears to take pride in implying his responsibility for others.

When it is expedient Watson makes speeches with a leading citizen tone: “If the Ten Thousand Islands have a future,…and I, for one, aim to see to it that they do, then those who place themselves above the law have no place in a decent law-abiding community.” At other times, his handyman reports, he “would brag around Key West how he took care of Belle Starr and her foreman when they came gunning for him…. Hinted as how he’d took care of a few,…but claimed he’d never killed nobody less they meant him harm.”

Watson’s contemporaries, among them some of the employees on his sugarcane farm, the local postmaster’s wife, other Chokoloskee farmers, and Watson’s own daughter, Carrie, tell the story of his life and of their encounters with him. Matthiessen maneuvers the country speech with variable success; the limitations of backwoods grammar can make the speakers’ stories of Watson run together repetitively. Sometimes, too, the prose takes on a stagy lyricism, a Stephen Fosterish note creeps in: “And of course there weren’t no place to go, not in the Islands. At night there was only cold, cold stars, so high beyond us, and the awful tangle of black limbs, owl hoot and heron squawk, the slap of mullet faraway down that lonesome river.”

But when it comes to life, the meandering talk subject to few rules, liberal with the obscenity that represents in these parts untrammeled freedom of speech, is Matthiessen’s meditation on the mysterious way in which where people live helps to create what they are. Here, a Chokoloskee fisherman helps bury a farmer Watson may have murdered:

I went to the boat, took a deep breath, and grabbed [him] under the arms, got him hoisted up a little, leaking…. In the sun he was warm on the outside, but under that warmth this fair-haired boy was cold, stiff, smelly meat, like some sun-crusted old porpoise on the tide line.

To find a common truth in this dense tangle of Watson anecdotes is like navigating in a Florida mangrove swamp.

Despite Watson’s dangerous reputation, he wins the admiration of the Chokoloskee locals as a talented farmer, and becomes prosperous, able to send his children to school in Fort Myers on the proceeds of his Island Pride cane syrup. But he is largely an emblem of the ruthless American entrepreneur, for whom profit overrides all other considerations, whether of land or people. Frank B. Tippins, the local sheriff, and Henry Thompson, Watson’s handyman, among others, mention Watson’s ambitious plans to make the region a center for coastal shipping by dredging out the mouth of the Chatham River, and most of the murder victims associated with Watson were fighting him over property or wages. Jean LeChevallier, an émigré ornithologist, calls him “the Emperor” because of his eagerness for power over both people and the environment itself.

And he relishes casual sadism; introducing himself to LeChevallier by shooting his hat out of his hand, displaying marksmanship by shooting half the mustache off a deputy sheriff, cutting a man’s throat in a bar in an argument over a land claim. Matthiessen’s Mister Watson is part of a savage strain in American literature that D.H. Lawrence identified in his Studies in Classic American Literature, in works like Moby-Dick, Poe’s horror stories, Hawthorne’s tales of tortured sexuality, and in Fenimore Cooper’s pioneer, Natty Bumppo. “He lives by death,” writes Lawrence of Fenimore Cooper’s hero, and implicitly of the American character. “All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.”

Watson runs away from Chokoloskee after the particularly grisly murder of a young farmer, whose heart is shot out of his body, and his pregnant wife, who have defied Watson over another land claim. The young woman is found floating in a backwater, covered with black mud snails: “Them snails was moving as they fed, they was pretty close to finished with Bet’s face. Weren’t no blue eyes to reproach us, thanks to Jesus, and no red lips neither.” Watson makes his guilt seem irrefutable to the locals by running away before he can be questioned. When he shows up again five years later and more murders occur on his property, a band of the local men confront him. Here again, motive and outcome are ambiguous; by some accounts, the men are determined to kill him, by others to question him. They do question him, but after he makes what appears to them to be a move toward his shotgun, they slaughter him, riddling his body with bullets well after he is dead.

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