Sort of a calm wail. Each page a deep pleasure.
A novel so fine you don't want it to ever end.
Vividly peopled, full of surprises,
The Heaven of Mercury is a deeply satisfying novel.
The best thing to come out of the South since
A Confederacy of Dunces.
The place is Mercury, Mississippi, the year is 1916 and down by the river on a hot, lazy day, Finus Bates spies a naked Birdie Wells doing a cartwheel under the shade of trees at a campsite. It's all he'll ever need to love Birdie his whole life, but Birdie will go on to marry a womanizing shoe salesman named Earl, and Finus will get shackled to a cold and unforgiving fish named Avis. Add the evil dreck of Earl's calculating family, the odd religion of the town undertaker, the secrets of a backwoods medicine woman and the simmering rage of a maid named Creasie, and you have the stuff of this thrillingly ambitious first novel. Both time and truth are slippery in this tale; several scenes are replayed more than once, from different perspectives, and many obvious end points are superceded by new and eerier retellings. But it is the style of this book that is bound to get the most attentionthe way Watson does not merely invoke Faulkner and García Márquez, but seems at times to speak straight through them.
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 cliches, 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.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Star-crossed lovers? Or victims of self-doubt and indecision? However one categorizes Finus Bates and Birdie Wells's love, the fact remains that it ruined two marriages and damaged the lives of the people nearest them. Finus and Birdie have known each other all their lives, but it was a chance glimpse of Birdie nude in the woods in 1917 that galvanized Finus's love forever. That he won her in a card game and lost her the same night and that he asked her to run away with him but didn't have the nerve to carry through cements their fate forever. In his first novel, Watson, author of the award-winning short story collection Last Days of the Dog-Men, tells the story of two ill-fated marriages and a second chance some 30 years later. In a Southern Gothic style reminiscent of Faulkner, Watson lays bare the lives and most intimate secrets of the richest and poorest families in Mercury, MS. The characters' racism may offend some readers, but it is an essential element of that particular time and place. Highly recommended for public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/15/02.] Thomas L. Kilpatrick, formerly with Southern Illinois Univ. Lib., Carbondale Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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 toblur 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.
A vivid mythology of a small Southern town that moves to a strange, electrifying beat.
A fast-paced, myth-echoing, tragic-comic commentary on our modern lives.
Watson imbues his work with an elegance that sets it apart from the rest.
A strange novel, this onestrange and uncommonly fine.
Gimcrack storytelling...grounded by generous humanity.
[A] lushly written novel of Deep Southern dream and landscape.
[A] superb novel, graced with lush and exciting prose in the Southern high rhetorical tradition.
Raleigh News and Observer
[A]n unforgettable story…The accidents, the disappointments, the corrections, and the secrets each life contains are woven into a deeply sympathetic portrait of small town life at its worst and best.
Watson has written a novel at once intimate and epic, magical and reala dazzling Southern gothic in which love and hate claim equal hold on the human heart.
Lovely, poignant, funny first novel, a book filled with fascinating, unpredictable, original characters.
The Heaven of Mercury is a tragicomic story of missed opportunities and unjust necessities that wittily explores the souls of its highly colorful cast of characters. It is suffused with an almost savage lyricism that illumines every accurate detail and nuance of place and speech. The light this novel casts is so brilliant it makes even its own shadows luminous. Brad Watson has struck a fresh and thrilling note.
[Watson's] work may remind readers of William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, or Flanner O'Connor, but has a powerand a charmall its own.
Merle Rubin - Baltimore Sun