First read: 1991
Owned since: 1995 (approximately, this copy)
KILLING MR. WATSON begins, as its title suggests, with a death.
This dark day has been coming down forever. Even the young woman, in her pale foreboding, seems to know this. The day is late, and a life runs swiftly to its end.
Mr. E.J. Watson, a violent man, is about to die a violent death. Is it justice? Is his death vengeance for one action, or for a lifetime of them? Why does he need to die, and why does he need to die on that day, October 24, 1910?
Matthiessen takes the real-life story of Everglades pioneer E.J. Watson, a man reputed to have killed Belle Starr and believed to have murdered his field hands instead of paying them, and turns it into a hallucinatory novel about passion, greed, vision and fear at the turn of the century.
Except for its prologue, KILLING MR. WATSON is structured as an oral history, with the many people present on that fateful day filling in what they knew -- and what they imagined -- about Mr. Watson. It is dazzling as both literature and history, and provides invaluable insight into Florida's long struggle with the conflicting demands of nature and development.
The one character's voice we never hear is Mr. Watson's own, but we get such a comprehensive picture of him by the end of the book that we admire him as much as we, too, fear and detest him.
I asked for this book for Christmas 1990, and didn't get it; instead I checked it out of the library, read it, loved it, and bought a paperback that I later gave to my then-boss, a Florida native. Strangely, although I admire Matthiessen's work tremendously (and am constantly recommending AT PLAY IN THE FIELDS OF THE LORD), I never felt any need to read the other two books in the trilogy that started with KILLING MR. WATSON. This book was perfect as it was, and I worried that inferior sequels would tarnish it.