The Heaven of Mercury, by Brad Watson. W.W. Norton. 339 pages. $23.95.
Titles don't seem to be a particular forte of Brad Watson's. His first book, an award-winning collection of stories, bore the mildly unappetizing moniker Last Days of the Dog-Men. Somewhat more inviting, perhaps, is the title he's chosen for his first novel. Mercury being the name of the sleepy little Mississippi town where the story unfolds, The Heaven of Mercury does suggest something of the novel's essence: a kind of supernatural naturalism.
Still, so bland an appellation doesn't begin to hint at the skill and inventiveness of Watson's prose style -- by turns humorous, earthy and lyrical -- or the imaginative scope of his story, let alone the originality of his vision.
Finus Bates has spent most of his 89 years in Mercury, running the local newspaper he took over from his father. All his adult life, he has never forgotten the epiphanic moment he experienced in his teens, when he caught sight of shy, pretty Birdie Wells doing a naked cartwheel in the woods. But although he has been in love with her ever since that moment, things did not work out for this pair.
Avidly pursued by the dynamic Earl Urquhart, Birdie agrees to marry him instead: "He was like a pesky fly or gnat in the shape of a man, swat and miss and he's right back again. So finally it was almost like she promised to spend the rest of her life with him just to get rid of him for the time being."
A disheartened Finus settles for Birdie's tart-tongued friend, the aptly named Avis Crossweatherly. Neither marriage is a conspicuous success. Both men cheat on their wives, Finus occasionally, Earl systemically. Earl's sudden death in early middle age from an apparent heart attack generates rumors that never entirely disappear. Neither does Finus' love for Birdie.
These are but the bare bones of a richly detailed, magically realistic novel filled with memorable characters, from Birdie's gentle, saintly grandfather, Pappy, to Parnell Grimes, the town undertaker, who brings an unusual dedication and passion to his work.
Not to mention Earl's violent, vicious father, his sluttish, spiteful sister, or his censorious evangelical mother: "a scrawny and sallow woman, set upon by demanding spirits, a tight brown bun in her hair like an onion God drew forth from her mind, a punishment and reminder of evil's beautiful, layered symmetry. Her heart though good was a shriveled potato, with sweet green shoots of kindness growing from it, a heart gone to seed." Watson's dazzling imagery and syntax can be complex and multi-layered, but are never murky or willfully obscure.
Grounded in the gritty realities of flawed human nature and a Nature both beautiful and dangerous (Birdie's family flees inland to Mercury in the wake of a terrible hurricane that destroys their coastal home), Watson's novel also soars into the realms of vision. His warts-and-all realism is tempered by tenderness and wisdom. Still more impressively, in a manner that is neither cloying nor ranting, he manages to portray the spiritual as a natural extension of material reality. His work may remind readers of William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, or Flannery O'Connor, but has a power -- and a charm -- all its own, more pellucid than the first, gentler than the second, and kinder than the third.
Merle Rubin writes for the Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, among others. She has a doctorate in English from the University of Virginia and studied English as an undergraduate at Smith College and Yale University.