[(review date autumn 2008) In the following review, Wilhelmus places Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth in the context of literature examining "the nightmare of history."]
--History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.Ulysses
Why did Peter Matthiessen spend more than two decades of his distinguished career writing about the life and death of E. J. Watson (1855-1910), a legendary historical figure from southwest Florida killed by his neighbors in 1910? What led the eminent author of twenty-eight works of fiction and nonfiction to write first a trilogy of novels--Killing Mr. Watson (1990), Lost Man's River (1997) and Bone by Bone (1999)--then revise it into a single volume nearly 900 pages long now entitled Shadow Country: A New Rendering of the Watson Legend?1 Isn't it because Watson symbolizes the nightmare of American values that Matthiessen has spent more than five decades trying to explain? In the "Author's Note" he tells us that the novel is meant to be a symphonic rendering of "one man's obsessive self-destruction set against the historic background of slavery and civil war, imperialism, and the rape of land and life under the banner of industrial 'progress' ... [and] indirectly the tragic racism that still darkens the integrity of a great land like a cloud shadow."
Watson's character is not easy to identify. He is elusive no matter how closely he resembles us. And Matthiessen employs three very different narrative strategies, retelling the Watson legend three different ways, each gaining perspective into this mystery. In Book I we learn about Watson through his neighbors who live near him in the Ten Thousand Islands region of southwest Florida's coast, where the Everglades empty into the Gulf of Mexico. It is a frontier region populated by outcasts and outlaws, fishermen, egret hunters, "crackers," ex-slaves, and pioneers as well as ordinary shopkeepers, bankers, and opportunists whose voices mingle to describe a man they both admire and fear. Watson, who appeared suddenly and mysteriously in their midst, is bent on building a home for himself out of the mosquito- and disease-infested swamp they all inhabit. He established a place on the Chatham River--mostly by driving off the Indians and bullying a series of squatters to relinquish their claims--and started a moderately successful sugar plantation. To his observers Watson is crude, but he is also a man with enormous physical and sexual vitality, clear eyes and an attractive self-assurance, "hard, cynical, and tragically self-destructive" but also "loving, humorous, courageous" and "aflame with energy and enterprise." Nonetheless it is rumored he had killed some people, including perhaps the outlaw queen Belle Starr, and is on the run. Also, more recent tales about murders along Chatham River by Watson or his minions ultimately make him a man to be feared and dealt with. These rumors true or not say the man is dangerous. And so a passel of folks--neighbors and possibly some in-laws--kill Watson in a fateful confrontation in October 1910. Was the killing of Mr. Watson murder, vengeance,...