Southern Living (and Dying) 

Mississippian Brad Watson’s delicate prose captures small-town life, but his diffuse narrative is too ambitious

Mississippian Brad Watson’s delicate prose captures small-town life, but his diffuse narrative is too ambitious

The Heaven of Mercury

By Brad Watson (W.W. Norton, $23.95, 288 pp.)

In the tiny town of Mercury, Miss., where Brad Watson’s new novel is set, folks go by names like Claudevelyn Peacock and Euple Scarbrough—the kind of gawky, convoluted monikers that so often arise in the South. To say them is to spit them. They make a crooked kind of poetry. Smacking of an earlier era, they exude age like nearly everything else about Watson’s book. Without a doubt, The Heaven of Mercury seems untouched by modernity. It reads like it was written 70 years ago.

A Mississippi native, Watson made his fiction debut in 1996 with a slim book of short stories called The Last Days of the Dogmen, a group of canine-related narratives inspired, the author says, by a tale he overheard about a woman who had her two-timing boyfriend’s dog put to sleep as a means of revenge. The collection won a couple of literary prizes, and Watson went on to teach at Harvard, where he headed the creative writing program—quite a coup for a tried-and-true Southern boy who started out as a carpenter in Meridian.

Watson’s new book contains no canines—indeed, the only dogs in Mercury are men. Centered around the sins of the corrupt Urquhart clan, which includes ne’er-do-well Levi and his brother Earl, a successful shoe salesman who goes through women like water, this impressionistic portrait of rural life below the Mason-Dixon Line looks, at first glance, like just another tangy tale of heated passions and emotional torment. But Watson manages to take traditional Southern themes like race and religion and make them his own, and his ambitious interior monologues bring to mind the work of narrative pioneers William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf (albeit not nearly as successful).

The book flashes back to 1918, as young Earl comes to blows with his rival Finus Bates in a fight for the affections of beautiful, elusive Birdie Wells. Finus has loved Birdie since he was a boy, but Earl pursues her so doggedly that she gives in, agreeing “to spend the rest of her life with him just to get rid of him for the time being.” Her momentary lapse, as it turns out, leads to a lifetime of misery. Surrounded by crazy Urquhart in-laws—a Bible-beating mother, a rapist father and their seductive daughter Merry, the town floozy—Birdie somehow manages to hold herself apart from their perversions, fluttering above the family with the delicacy and refinement that made her such a rare creature in the eyes of her suitors. Finus, meanwhile, makes an equally unhappy match with Birdie’s friend Avis.

The foursome soon settle into “the time-honored practice of slow, connubial dissolution.” Fun flirtations, they quickly learn, can make dreary marriages, and we watch as the mysteries of their youth become the commonalities of adulthood. We also see the damage done by the Urquharts. Running out of options in their small town, Merry sets her sights on Finus, and he is eventually lured into an affair with her—a relationship that dooms his marriage with the arch, severe Avis. (Comically enough, Watson has Merry’s morally flawed nature manifest itself in a severe case of chronic halitosis—breath so foul her lovers make her cut it with whiskey.) Retreating to The Mercury Comet, his family’s newspaper, Finus becomes, as he ages, a sort of caretaker for the town’s history, a medium between the past and the present.

Through shifts in points of view, Watson brings in a slew of secondary characters who provide different perspectives on the book’s main players. Although they live on the fringes, two of Mercury’s black inhabitants—the stout, formidable Aunt Vish, a midwife and medicine woman, and the timorous Creasie, housemaid to Birdie and Earl—know more about what goes on in town than people think. So does Parnell Grimes, the local undertaker, a man with a taste for necrophilia. When Earl Urquhart dies suddenly of uncertain causes—some say he was poisoned—it is to Grimes that Finus turns in hopes of solving the town’s darkest mystery.

In Mercury a fine line separates the here from the hereafter. (Indeed, portions of the book are narrated by those who have already gone to their graves.) Preoccupied with the past, which frequently invades the present through flashbacks and remembered images, Finus, at the age of 89, begins “to wonder if he wasn’t himself walking along so close to the edge of another dimension, like a man half in the mirror, half out.” Unfortunately, this tenuousness carries over into the reader’s experience of the book. There’s a lack of concreteness here that’s due, in part, to the nature of Watson’s project, which is to capture the quicksilver quality of memory, to replicate the workings of the mind. In hopscotching from one character’s consciousness to another, however nimbly, he has written a story without a center. It doesn’t help that Finus, who turns out to be the book’s central character, disappears from the narrative for nearly 70 pages. And Finus himself feels strangely insubstantial—as filmy and frail and utterly ethereal as the memories that haunt him.

Watson has received high praise from his Mississippi contemporaries Barry Hannah and Larry Brown. Compared to the fiction of those two larger-than-life authors, though, The Heaven of Mercury is a different breed of book; Watson writes with none of the rough machismo or good ol’ boy toughness that so often characterizes their work. If he lacks Hannah’s swagger or Brown’s boisterousness, it’s because his prose has a quieter kind of energy. It’s gentler. You might even say it has a touch of the feminine about it. In the end, it’s the delicate design of Watson’s sentences and the ornament of his metaphors that make up for the narrative’s shortcomings.

As for Mercury itself, the author, who’s big on bird imagery, has created a squawky, cacophonous community—an aviary of gossip and rumor with a hopelessly intertwined citizenry. Writing with considerable skill, he shows he knows his way around small towns. The Heaven of Mercury is nothing if not a lesson in how the collective consciousness of a community is formed, how rumor, over time, calcifies into myth. But Watson has overreached with this antiquated, Southern Gothic set piece. Before he set his sights on heaven, he should have had solid ground beneath his feet.

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