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Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels (34)

If an author really captures our imagination and regularly delivers a superior product, then I'm willing to be patient when they try something new, even if I prefer the stuff that earned their reputation (Sharon Kay Penman's mysteries vs. her historical epics), and forgiving with efforts that don't quite hit the mark.  Unfortunately, I think that this is something of a misfire for Watkins, who is pretty nearly my favorite writer.

This is his sixth novel and, like each of the previous books, it opens up a new world in a level of detail that is truly remarkable (Watkins notoriously immerses himself in the milieu of his subject before writing his books).  This time the setting is the Northwoods of Maine, where mill owner Noah McKenzie has been granted logging rights to a stand of trees, the Algonquin Wilderness, in the days before it becomes a nature preserve.  McKenzie is a figure of Ahab like obsession, determined to clear cut the forest where he lost a leg in a wood cutting accident years before.  Arrayed against him are: the woman who owns the local environmentally conscious newspaper; an ecoterrorist named Adam Gabriel who is driven by the environmental destruction he saw in the burning oilfields of Kuwait; the foreman of his mill; and even his own wife.   As Gabriel escalates his monkey wrenching tactics, McKenzie turns to a mercenary friend and soon enough there is open warfare in the woods.  Lurking in the dark like a deus ex machina is a grizzled old seemingly unkillable bear that the locals call No Ears.

Now, as you can see from the myriad elements that are brought together here, there's just a little too much room for melodrama and, indeed, there are points when the story slides over the edge into unbelievability.  But my real complaint is that Watkins, who is normally a more subtle author, has really stacked the moral deck.  Rather than have McKenzie and Gabriel meet as idealistic moral equals, Watkins tips his hand from the get go and portrays McKenzie as a malevolent force, hell bent on destruction for it's own sake.  Setting aside my own political inclination to cut the mill owner some slack, I think it would simply be a more interesting story if McKenzie were more ambiguous, if it were harder to choose sides in the explosive showdown.

But as I said, I'm willing to go a little easy on these complaints because I've liked Watkin's prior works so much and even amidst the facets I disliked, there is much to like here.


Grade: (B-)


Book-related and General Links:
    -Paul Watkins: Author (The Lawrenceville Club of New York)
    -INTERVIEW: (Peddie School)
    -The Interview (Wykehamists Web Site)
    -Paul Watkins Web Site (Andrew Summers)
    -REVIEW: (Erik Burns, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Archangel By Paul Watkins (James William Brown, Bookpage)
    -REVIEW: of The Story of My Disappearance (Larry Swindell, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
    -REVIEW: of STAND BEFORE YOUR GOD (Lorene Cary, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of IN THE BLUE LIGHT OF AFRICAN DREAMS (Carolyn Gaiser, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Night Over Day Over Night (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -Paul Watkins: Back to a Death in the Lawless Everglades REVIEW: of Lost Man's River By Peter Matthiessen (Literary Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Story of My Disappearance by Paul Watkins (Carey Harrison, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Paul Watkins: The Forger  (John Marks, Boston Review)