I came to Peter Matthiessen’s National Book Award-winning novel SHADOW COUNTRY the way I stumble into most of the best things along the way – quite by accident. I was at a local thrift store, looking for pillows I might use for a dog bed. The book section caught my eye.
I had forgotten that thrift stores are excellent places to buy books. Celebrated tomes like SHADOW COUNTRY slouch against diet books written by now-dead celebrities. The thrift store book section reminds me we’re all headed to the same place, eventually.
And that place smells, at best, like mothballs.
There it was – all 888 pages of it. I’d never read it, or heard of it. I’d never heard of the writer. Google would later school me on how unacceptable this was. Matthiessen is one of those famous white guy writers other writers are supposed to know about and admire. At least, if you want the literary elites to respect you. Which I don’t, not anymore.
I long ago gave up earning respect from elites, because so many of them are idiots. They belittle Dean Koontz because he is commercially successful. They salivate over Junot Diaz because he fulfills a white-guilt fantasy of the nerd as noble savage. Besides, I learned long ago to keep a safe distance from final club parties I am not allowed to enter unless I’m invited to jump out of the cake.
I bought the book anyway. It cost me less than a dollar.
SHADOW COUNTRY is not a quick read. Written from a multitude of first-person perspectives, each crafted, meticulously, in a distinct voice, it is not an easy read, either. This is where my mixed feelings come in. I love reading. I love writing. Reading should not be hard – and by “hard” I don’t mean I can’t understand it; I mean that I have to step out of the narrative and pat the writer on the head too often. It’s hard because the writer is the way.
I was trained as a literary nonfiction writer, a journalist – first at Columbia J-School, where William Zinsser’s ON WRITING WELL was our bible, and after that under the tutelage of brilliant long-form features editors Lincoln Millstein and Mary Jane Wilkinson in the newsroom of the Boston Globe (and, to a lesser extent, under Oscar Garza at the Los Angeles Times.) Journalists, as writers, are the opposite of academics or MFA grads; we are tasked with taking complex ideas and reducing them, as one might make a plum and wine reduction over a high fast heat, into something easy on the tongue, something deceptively easy. Never use a big word when a small word will do, preached the Zinsser. Get out of the way. Let the story speak for itself.
Set in the Florida Everglades in the 1800s, SHADOW COUNTRY is written, almost entirely, using a device called “eye dialect,” meaning that words are misspelled, punctuation misused, to reflect the ostensibly authentic voices of the (usually uneducated and poor, though not stupid) characters in whose heads we find ourselves.
In the chapters told in a first-person voice, Matthiessen uses eye dialect not only in direct quotes, but continuously. His use of eye dialect is masterful, dizzying, meticulous and consistent. I admire it. A lot. He presents differing levels of ignorance, patterns of speech that are undeviating and wholly believable for each class of person he portrays. What an incredible feat of listening, of observing, of capturing cadence and tone and linking it, without saying so, to race, sex, class. This is brilliance.
What stops me from loving it, as others have, is the sense I get of the author, ever present, showing off. Matthiessen is everywhere, doing verbal somersaults just because he can. It is the same issue I have with overly-long and showy and narcissistic bebop solos. Music, at its best, is utilitarian, an escape, a place where the listener goes to connect to cosmic truths unnamable in any other way, a way for the listener to connect more deeply with themselves, not more deeply with the musician. So too, for the greatest of literature. Great writers do not need your validation. They get out of the way.
In Dickens or in Koontz, I lose myself and inhabit the characters completely, I forget the author altogether, as he serves only as the master of ceremonies who announces the performance then goes away. It should be noted, too, that Dickens also uses a great deal of eye dialect, but does so gently and genuinely, unobtrusively, with kindness.
Matthiessen, meanwhile, never goes away.
It is as though he is peering over the top of the book at you all the way through, needy, wanting you to admire how perfectly he has captured these voices – which only comes across, in the end, as judgmental, though I know the author’s intention was, fundamentally, to have compassion for his characters.
Adding to my unease is the fact that the third-person chapters sprinkled throughout, written in gorgeous descriptive prose, are all from the limited point of view of educated white men. These, Matthiessen allows to sound classically respectable. I get why he did it; he wanted to show that they were the only ones with access to the education and privilege that allowed them to “sound” this way. But was that really true? I don’t know.
I’m probably being a little bit unfair. Matthiessen was a Buddhist, a socialist, a humanist, an all-around compassionate and good human. But he was incubated in the ivy leagues and the CIA, born in 1927, and he was embraced by an elite New York literary establishment that has long celebrated rich white men who “capture” the experience of the proverbial Other, while overlooking (at best) and flat-out condemning those same Others when they don’t “sound” the way men like Matthiessen perceive them to. I can’t count how many times a white editor has accused my characters of not sounding “Latino enough,” because, to him, Latinos are Others, and Others cannot possibly be default humans.
I know that Matthiessen sought to portray these Others of his with great compassion; he shows their innate intelligence working its way through their self-consciously damaged prose, in spite of it all. For me, however, it still comes across as patronizing; I have lived all my life among these Others, and they never sound, amongst themselves, this graceless.
The beauty of living in a community with supposedly poor grammar is that no one is there to judge the grammar; they cannot, after all. Rather, they relate, one to the other, directly through their agreed-upon shared system of symbols; never realizing their grammar is poor, they hear, then, only the meaning of the ideas, thoughts and feelings being conveyed. It is only outsiders who perceive the flaw in their system, and this is exactly why an outsider will never adequately capture these voices as they sound to those who use them.