THE HEAVEN OF MERCURY
A tinted review in adult Forecasts indicates a book that's of exceptional importance to our readers, but hasn't received a starred or boxed review.
Watson traces a dark but resonant journey through the world of the Southern gothic in his bleak, touching debut novel (after his hailed collection, Last Days of the Dog-Men), set in tiny Mercury, Miss., in the first quarter of the 20th century. He takes some risks in employing genre clichés, starting with the romantic triangle in which young, sensitive Finus Bates watches the girl of his dreams, Birdie Wells, marry a more determined suitor, the shallow but ardent Earl Urquhart. That leaves Bates to marry Birdie's best friend, Avis Crossweatherly, and both marriages fail miserably as Watson tracks his two would-be lovers through the years. At 16, Birdie is a victim of her slick husband's infidelity, which starts when he finds her sexually inadequate and turns his attention to other women, until he finally falls in love with a woman living in a nearby town. Bates, meanwhile, realizes that Avis has engineered Birdie's marriage, leaving Bates vulnerable to her own rapacious pursuit. To escape his shrewish wife, he immerses himself in his work on his smalltown newspaper, where he pens eloquent obituaries ("Disappointments flock to us like crows," he writes in one). Watson's subordinate characters—including the compassionate town mortician, whose first experience of death involves necrophilia; former slave, medicine woman and midwife Aunt Vish, who knows all the dark secrets of the community; Creasie, a taciturn maid—are observed with cool irony and invested with humanity. Several deaths punctuate the narrative, and casual, virulent racism is rampant, sometimes balanced by a grudging interracial respect. Watson's prose is lush and sometimes a bit too orotund and faux-Faulknerian, but it fits the narrative theme of metamorphoses from one life to another, from earth to a land beyond. 8-city author tour. (Aug.)
Release date: 08/01/2002