Betrayals

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 …

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