Originally written as one enormous 1500‑page novel, Shadow Country was released as three separate volumes in the 1990s. This version is a rewrite.
The author tells me so in the foreword, culminating in the strange assertion that the book has no message, immediately followed by a diatribe about how it exposes the evils of: inherent racism; trying to make our lives better (?); destruction of the environment; and the powerlessness of the irrelevant (?) people in the story. Presumably their “irrelevance” doesn’t extend to their story not being worth telling.
The protagonist is E. J. Watson, a plantation owner in the south Florida Everglades at the turn of the 20th century. An incomer to a closed community, his unaccounted‑for prosperity led to much gossip, as did his (alleged) involvement in several murders. In 1910 he was murdered by a local mob. That, baldly, is all that is exactly known about him.
Matthiessen tells the story three times, each from a different person’s viewpoint. This accounts for every possible permutation of what happened, but it also means the novel never comes to any conclusion. The author has a passion for this tale, but his success in similarly enthusing the reader is more questionable. The detail, the hundreds of minor characters, and the extensive use of local slang make this hard to follow. Even the vaunted social exploration is flawed. As there are so few hard facts about Watson’s life and times, the author is effectively commenting on his own suppositions, which frankly is a bit of a nerve.
As I was wading through this, I came to the conclusion that Mr Matthiessen would have been better advised to spend his time and considerable writing skills on a more substantial story.