So what’s the most distinguished American novel published in the last five years? Gilead? Nope. The History of Love? Not quite. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao? No Sir… The Road? Getouttahere! Freedom? Well, maybe next time.
According to The American Academy of Arts and Letters it’s Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country.
This summer Matthiessen was awarded their William Dean Howells Medal, which recognizes every five years the most distinguished American novel published in that period. Previous winners? William Faulkner, John Updike, Don DeLillo, Willa Cather… Thomas Pynchon declined the award in 1975. Peter Matthiessen is also the only writer to have won the National Book Award for both non-fiction and fiction (Shadow Country again).
Shadow Country is a big book with an intriguing genesis. In the ’90s Matthiessen’s publisher persuaded him it was too big to be released as one volume, so it hit the shelves in three, Killing Mr Watson (1990), Lost Man’s River (1997) and Bone by Bone (1999). The trilogy was well received, but Matthiessen was never satisfied with it being chopped up, as he writes in the author’s note to Shadow Country, ‘like a loaf of bread’. In a Paris Review interview in 1999 he revealed that he intended to spend a year remaking it; one year became seven, but in 2008 it was finally ready to be published in its proper form.
So what’s it about? Shadow Country examines from myriad points of view the life and death of Edgar J. Watson, outlaw and planter of genius, as quick with a quip as he is with his gun. His rise and fall is set against the rapid and destructive cultivation of the Florida archipelago, once the Wild West of the East Coast, which went from impenetrable, gator-infested swamp to prime, developed real estate in the decades just before and after the turn of the last century.
Everyone who has finished it (and at 900 pages, some have fallen by the wayside) has been instantly marked. Our publicist now talks in a Deep South accent; she sits on the steps of Mac Towers with a shotgun across her knees hawking and chomping on chaw, drawling ‘Ya’ll’ at passersby.
But don’t take our word for it. Take the American Academy of Arts and Letters’. Or The National Book Award’s. Or those listed below, for that matter:
‘If this isn’t a great novel, American or otherwise, I don’t know what is’
Jonathan Gibbs, Independent
‘The language is wonderful … very different from the descriptions of pioneering we have become accustomed to—a great advance on Walt Whitman. Or even Robert Frost’
‘Peter Matthiessen is a brilliantly gifted and ambitious writer, an inspired anatomist of the American mythos. His storytelling skills are prodigious and his rapport with his subject is remarkable’
Joyce Carol Oates
‘The momentum is insistent … brilliantly realized … Shadow Country’s critique of the wanton rape of natural resources for financial gain seems both timely and timeless … A remarkable achivement … the myth endures’
Neil Fitzgerald, Times Literary Supplement
‘A masterpiece of world literature. I would give it every prize and award on earth’
Paul Engles, Editor, MacLehose Press