I recently finished Peter Matthiessan’s Shadow Country , for which he won the National Book Award, and most deservedly so. It was an absolute masterpiece, and well worth every moment spent reading the 1100 + pages — although the Kindle discourages counting pages. Let’s just say it took a healthy amount of time. Not nearly, however, as long as it took him to write it, since he mentioned that his notes on the subject dated to 1978.
Matthiessan was (alas, was, as he just a few months ago died after a lengthy and worthwhile life) an amazing human being in so many respects, which is better than simply calling him a “genius”, although I believe what he achieved with Shadow Country qualifies. In this Rashoman-like telling of an obscure historical story set in South Florida around either side of the turn of the century, Mr. Matthiessan manages to convey the depth of the stupidity and brutality of the modernization of this country in a way that is all-at-once humorous, horrifying, and compassionate. Not many could pull this off, but he does it, and with the investigative ability of the skilled and dogged journalist, coupled with old-fashioned tools of the storyteller. This writer is a man who had managed to win the National Book award for both fiction and non-fiction – not many, or perhaps any others have done that.
What I appreciate about him so much, and why still I thank my father for insisting that I read The Snow Leopard when I was seventeen years old, was the way that Peter Matthiessen lived his life – wide-awake, inquisitive, and with an equal respect for journalism and literature. He not only understood, but demonstrated with clarity the notion that reality is so astonishing that sometimes the only way to properly render it is through fiction.
I am not sure what to read next- a tough act to follow, to be sure. It will likely be a series of lightweight mysteries. That’s quite OK – after scaling something like Kilimanjaro we all need a stroll through the Catskills.