A seamless interweaving of narrative, remembrance, dreaming, and fantasy unifies a wealth of colorful tragicomic material—in a superb first novel by the Alabama storywriter (Last Days of the Dog-Men, 1996).
Central protagonist Finus Bates is the octogenarian editor of his hometown newspaper, The Mercury Comet, and sometime radio personality—and, through the long years of an unhappy marriage and unmitigated grief over his only son’s early death, the unfulfilled lover of Birdie Wells Urquhart, whom Finus has adored ever since he accidentally saw her naked many decades earlier. Watson sets their unaccomplished relationship within a roiling context that embraces such melodramatic local phenomena as the tomcatting prowess of Birdie’s unfaithful husband Earl and his appalling father Junius; the stunted growth to manhood of Parnell Grimes, inheritor of both his father’s funeral parlor and the persuasive rumor that the latter had prospered by “selling bodies and body parts to the Atomic Energy Commission”; and the secrets kept by Birdie’s resentful black housemaid Creasie and the latter’s spooky Aunt Vish, a healer and witch-woman whom Faulkner might have created. The Southern Gothic detail is both shuddery and deliciously absurd, but the real strength of the novel lies in its flexible structure, which allows us to overhear details of Mercury’s overheated history as pieced together by several involved observers, and in Watson’s delicate comprehension of the subtle gradations of aging and change as the years pass, Mercury’s people settle into the grooves life seems to have reserved for them, and the boundaries separating black from white, humans from animals, the living from the dead, appear to blur and dissolve. Finus and Birdie are marvelous creations, and Watson surrounds them with such agreeable grotesques as Parnell Grimes’s death-obsessed soulmate Selena Oswald and Mercury’s unofficial intellectual elder, morose, moribund Euple Scarbrough.
Southern storytelling is alive and well in Watson’s capable hands. An excellent debut.