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The Morning News Tournament of Books

The Tournament of Books is an annual battle royale between 16 of the best novels published in the previous year.

A new match is played here each weekday in March.

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judged by C. Max Magee
At the weigh-in, these books appear mismatched: The Lazarus Project is a wiry 15.2 ounces versus Shadow Country, a brick in my shoulder bag at 2.2 pounds. But once in the ring, they have a surprising amount in common.

For one thing, both Peter Matthiessen and Aleksandar Hemon take actual historical figures as protagonists. (Matthiessen’s E.J. Watson even merits his own Wikipedia mention.) And these books share a time period: the early years of the last century. When Matthiessen’s planter and suspected “desperader” Watson was backed into a corner in Florida, Hemon’s immigrant egg-packer and suspected anarchist Lazarus Averbuch was meeting his end in Chicago.

In plot and theme, too, the books go blow-for-blow. Each opens with its protagonist dying at the hands of other men (perhaps wrongfully? Well, it’s complicated.) Each boasts a gut-punch ending. Both books take on the American struggle between progress and the people whose sweat and toil made that progress possible.

Even from the cheap seats, it’s clear both combatants are the product of obsession. Matthiessen first began work on his “Watson project” more than 30 years ago. He initially turned in a 1,500-page manuscript which, when his publisher balked, he crudely hacked into three books. All three chunks were published and well-received, and yet he couldn’t leave Watson, a complicated and magnetic suspected murderer, alone. He spent “six or seven” more years sewing the three severed books back together, molding them into a new, trimmer whole.

While Matthiessen worked and reworked Watson for years, Hemon was so obsessed with Lazarus that he went ahead and wrote himself into the story as Vladimir Brik, a Bosnian writer (like Hemon) landed in America, uneasily straddling two continents, and suddenly flush with grant money (Hemon’s MacArthur) to fuel his quixotic quest to figure out just why Lazarus Averbuch was murdered on the doorstep of the Chicago’s Chief of Police in 1908.

Lazarus has many charms. Brik’s companion following Lazarus’s roots to the farther reaches of Eastern Europe is Rora (based on Hemon’s real life photographer friend Velibor Bozovic), whose self-deprecating “Muja” jokes mocking a doltish Bosnian everyman give Brik’s quest an undercurrent of dark mirth and were a highlight of the book for me.

However, though Hemon has crafted an adventurous and engaging book, it feels, as its title suggests, like a “project.” Hemon has written the book that Brik may one day write, and the book is about Brik trying to write that book. It is a testament to Hemon that he largely pulls off this ever-circling effort, but the inward tilt of Lazarus cannot hold its own against the weightiness of Matthieson’s storytelling.

In the end, Matthiessen’s obsession carries the day. In a story as deep and complex as history, Matthiessen meticulously maps the backwater of Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands and traces tangled threads from Calusa Indian shell mounds to Jim Crow work gangs to the Florida statehouse.

Moreover, Matthiessen writes Watson in the voices of his enemies, his apologists, and finally himself, an impressive feat of polyphonic narration that is every bit, in its way, as experimental as Hemon’s time-jumping, circular references, and black-and-white photographs. The reader sees Matthiessen’s Watson from every angle and knows well his flaws and cold cruelty but also feels sympathy for his lifetime of terrible luck.

At first, I bridled hitting the book’s third part 500 pages in, realizing I would have to relive Watson’s life a third time. But I soon found Matthiessen’s Watson to be perhaps one of the great unreliable narrators, and, though I still chew on questions of his guilt, the Watson charisma seduced me (as it clearly seduced Matthiessen).

Shadow Country is not without flaws. The middle section focusing on Watson’s son Lucius takes us too far from Watson, the book’s gravitational center, and thus drags in parts, making this reader antsy during an already long book. Hemon’s book is larded with humor, while Matthiessen’s doesn’t waver much from its overpowering seriousness.

But these are fairly minor quibbles. The Lazarus Project is a commendable effort by Hemon and certainly worth reading, but a heavyweight like Shadow Country only strides into the American literary ring from time to time. Shadow Country wins the round.

Today’s WINNER

Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen

About the Judge

C. Max Magee created and edits The Millions, a popular literature and culture web site with several regular contributors and frequent guest appearances by literary all-stars. He has appeared on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” and Minnesota Public Radio’s “Midmorning,” and has written for Poets and Writers and various other online and dead-tree publications. He and his wife live in Philadelphia. Known connections to this year’s contenders: I’ve corresponded via email with Mark Sarvas with some regularity over the last five years. We’ve also met at two or three boozy book parties. Joseph O’Neill contributed a brief piece to my blog last year. This was arranged by my colleague and I didn’t have any contact with O’Neill.

From the Booth

It’s certainly curious that Max owns a scale that measures things in ounces. Kevin John If any of the sections of Shadow Country were in the tournament individually, would they have even sniffed the semis?
» Read Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner’s commentary on the match and leave a comment of your own «

The Peanut Gallery

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absolutely   no way