Brad Watson first came to national attention with an award-winning book of short stories, Last Days of the Dog-Men, winner of the Sue Kauffman Award for first fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Now, in his first novel, The Heaven of Mercury, Watson has created a fast-paced, myth-echoing, tragi-comic commentary on our modern lives.
The novel opens during the radio show of 87-year-old Finus Bates, broadcast from a tiny studio in downtown Mercury, Mississippi. The story quickly shifts back in time to 1917 and the start of Finus' lifelong love for his elusive "kindred spirit," Birdie Wells.
That Finus ends up married to a "kangaroo face" woman named Avis, Latin for bird, is the first of many ironies that permeate The Heaven of Mercury The reader meets Merry, a meddling nymphomaniac with halitosis, and Parnell, an undertaker with an unseemly attraction to the dead. Next enter Aunt Vish, an ageless root woman, and 12-year-old Creasie, hired by Birdie's husband Earl to help around the house. Soon Earl's racist father brings home a life-size electric-saw-wielding store dummy, setting in motion a chain of events that eventually leads to murder. Watson ties these strange and improbable characters together in a narrative so convincing the reader willingly accepts the dismembered black heart in a mason jar, and the woman who dies and brings herself back for the spiritual joy of sex. Watson also excels at creating intense images of sights and smells: "the odor of honeysuckle from some hidden patch . . . broke through the lingering acidic exhaust from the station wagon . . . "
In The Heaven of Mercury, Watson places the reader in a nostalgic, fantastical universe. His characters somehow survive bad marriages, unanswered love, death and mayhem, all with their humanity intact. He leaves us with the hope that we, the readers, will prevail, too.
Mary Carol Moran teaches the Novel Writers' Workshop for the Auburn University Outreach Program and at conferences around the U.S.