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 Fiction Review   

 
The Heaven of Mercury
by Brad Watson
W.W. Norton & Company, 2002
Hardcover, $23.95 (333pp)
ISBN: 0-393-04757-1

 

 
 

Brad Watson writes with great authority about the supernatural, ghosts, and weird occurrences in the everyday world of a place he calls Mercury, Mississippi, patterned after his home town of Meridian.

Ever since Brad Watson was a reporter in Montgomery for The Alabama Journal I have been following his work. A few years ago W.W. Norton published his fine collection of short fiction called Last Days of the Dog-Men which was an admirable showcase of stories set in Alabama and the South. But it was minor league compared to this mirage of magnificence, a saga of four lives intertwined through the ages and into after-life. 

His description of Birdie Wells Urquhart’s late-life house: “The room contained, as if sealed there, the chilled stale odor of a neglected museum dedicated to the finer middle-class living room in the 1940s. Heavy furniture with thick and gnarled wooden protrusions like mummified hands at the ends of the armrests, no give he knew to the cushions beneath fabric developing the sheen of old clothing mothballed for years, springs as hard as the springs on the rear axle of his truck.” 

We are seeing the place, experiencing it, through the eyes of another principal character, Finus Bates, who has been in love with Birdie ever since they were young teenagers, when he’d stepped into the brush to relieve himself near Chunky River in 1917 and spotted the naked Birdie: “Ample in the hip yet augmented in protruding carnality of bone, pelvic jut like a smooth white plow, a sweet little benaveled pooch, and shoulder blades beautifully awkward as the small futile wings of a hatchling. He gazed through the leaf lattice at the immaculate cradled shading of her visible ribs, smooth and defined of faint bone shadow, and the delicate scoop from which her long slim neck rose into an oval face made beautiful in this light and unself-conscious nakedness.” 

As Birdie cartwheels across his vision, Finus’s heart aches for her, but it is the smooth and sultry Earl Urquhart who wins her hand, and Finus is left with the other girl, Avis Crossweatherly, whose personality matches the contradictions of her name and whose own sadness is a weighty burden throughout their tale of wonder and woe. Spicing and souring the landscape is Earl’s sister Merry, a gorgeous creature as sexy as her brother, earthy and teasing, full of herself, tainted by bad breath and an uncompromising heart. 

Written with a poetic detachment, the words sting as the author paints with bold and passionate strokes, filling the countryside with tiny details that rub through the senses like a pretty girl’s kind word or a fingernail across a blackboard, all filled with measured emotion. 

As the bard of Mercury, Finus, editor of the Mercury Comet, chronicles the lives of its citizens through the obituaries that make him famous among his followers. It is with a touch of brilliance that Brad Watson is able to view his characters through Finus’s words, through his 20/20 vision, his aging middle-class wisdom, then back away to the Picasso-like cockeyed view of the maid Creasie and the witch woman, Aunt Vish, casting cloudy voodoo spells that never quite appear in clear focus, seen instead through the kaleidoscope of shapes and sizes, unfolding until the last sentence is stretched out in front of the reader. 

Others have likened Watson’s writing to other writers. To me he is a singular writer. He casts his own spells. His words are without equal. His sentences -- often too long and too complex -- reach a crescendo through love and lust, through honor and disloyalty, through hurt and hate and sweetness and glory, through the now and the past and well into the future. They tumble out, like the land, like the hurricane that destroyed Birdie’s childhood home. 

Although his world is as real as Birdie’s living room, it is wild with ghosts that float through the rarified clouds high above Mercury, higher even than the highest building and the tower beacon of WCUV-AM from which Finus broadcasts his well-chosen words every morning to the world of Mercury. 

Throughout the tale -- a tall tale, at that, like a long shaggy dog story -- their lives are laced together through the fabric that is Mercury, Mississippi, a place but not a place, as mildly mythic as a made-up land, as real as the tall Confederate monument that stands in front of the courthouse, yet as unreal and as imagined as Aunt Vish’s potion. But what is real? And what is unreal? Which has the most power: a bomb? or a well-fashioned paragraph? 

Such are the truths of Brad Watson’s powerful story, The Heaven of Mercury, to be read and enjoyed, then rediscovered and experienced thoroughly again and again.

 

Wayne Greenhaw
Southern Scribe Reviews

 

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