The atmosphere is thick and heavy in this dense Florida, the story is tangled as if it were an ancient root ball of histories and relationships, and there is another, weightier element here: the clotted fear and rage of poor people struggling to survive. And in the tropical heat, where the “swamp angels” swarm, a moral dilemma arises, gathers mass, and tests the spirit of the town, sweeping it to a grim conclusion. The dilemma is in the dark question the townspeople must answer: Just what will be done with Mister Watson? Is he a good neighbor, a prosperous and powerful farmer? Is he a ruthless serial murderer? Could he somehow be both? The several gritty answers to these questions, and the aftermath of those answers, form a powerhouse story. We are held by that moral dilemma, but the weight of the story is born by our tracing, root by root, through the tangle of the Hamiltons, the Houses, the Smallwoods, and the Tippinses as they bring events through twenty years to a conclusion.
Peter Matthiessen died just recently and the idea I had of him–that he was exclusively a naturalist–is now greatly enlarged and I’ll be looking forward to reading At Play in the Fields of the Lord and Far Tortuga, two of his other novels.