The Heaven of Mercury: A Novel

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Overview

Shortlisted for the 2002 National Book Award in Fiction: a dark, riotous Southern novel of sex, death, and transformation.

Brad Watson's first novel has been eagerly awaited since his breathtaking, award-winning debut collection of short stories, Last Days of the Dog-Men. Here, he fulfills that literary promise with a humorous and jaundiced eye. Finus Bates has loved Birdie Wells since the day he saw her do a naked cartwheel in the woods in 1916. Later he won her at poker, lost ...

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The Heaven of Mercury: A Novel

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Overview

Shortlisted for the 2002 National Book Award in Fiction: a dark, riotous Southern novel of sex, death, and transformation.

Brad Watson's first novel has been eagerly awaited since his breathtaking, award-winning debut collection of short stories, Last Days of the Dog-Men. Here, he fulfills that literary promise with a humorous and jaundiced eye. Finus Bates has loved Birdie Wells since the day he saw her do a naked cartwheel in the woods in 1916. Later he won her at poker, lost her, then nearly won her again after the mysterious poisoning of her womanizing husband. Does Vish, the old medicine woman down in the ravine, hold the key to Birdie's elusive character? Or does Parnell, the town undertaker, whose unspeakable desires bring lust for life and death together? Or does the secret lie with some other colorful old-timer in Mercury, Mississippi, not such a small town anymore? With "graceful, patient, insightful and hilarious" prose (USA Today), Brad Watson chronicles Finus's steadfast devotion and Mercury's evolution from a sleepy backwater to a small city. With this "tragicomic story of missed opportunities and unjust necessities" (Fred Chappell), "Southern storytelling is alive and well in Watson's capable hands" (Kirkus Reviews starred review). "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" (Baltimore Sun).

Finalist for the 2002 National Book Award, Fiction.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
A honey-dipped tale about how an unrequited love affair -- nurtured for nearly a century -- affects the citizens of a backwoods Mississippi town, Brad Watson's first full-length novel expands the Southern Gothic style of his short stories (Last Days of the Dog Men) and presents an unforgettable community of vividly observed, deeply human characters.
Bookpage
“A fast-paced, myth-echoing, tragic-comic commentary on our modern lives.”
The State
“Lovely, poignant, funny first novel, a book filled with fascinating, unpredictable, original characters.”
The Advocate
“[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.”
Boston Herald
“Watson imbues his work with an elegance that sets it apart from the rest.”
Literal Latte
“Watson's keen eye for the human condition alone makes Heaven a worthwhile read, and you may find yourself accruing a particular type of knowledge that not even Faulkner could impart.”
New York Times
“[A] lushly written novel of Deep Southern dream and landscape.”
Central Journal News
“A strange novel, this one—strange and uncommonly fine.”
Entertainment Weekly
“Gimcrack storytelling...grounded by generous humanity.”
The Jackson Advocate
“Watson has written a novel at once intimate and epic, magical and real—a dazzling Southern gothic in which love and hate claim equal hold on the human heart.”
Memphis Commercial Appeal
“An intensity reminiscent of Faulkner, a bleak humor that recalls Flannery O'Connor, a whimsy inspired by Eudora Welty and a spontaneity suggesting prime Barry Hannah.... reading The Heaven of Mercury certainly restores one's faith in Southern literature's ability to startle and surprise.”
Raleigh News and Observer
“[A] superb novel, graced with lush and exciting prose in the Southern high rhetorical tradition.”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“A vivid mythology of a small Southern town that moves to a strange, electrifying beat.”
Baltimore Sun
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
The Los Angeles Times Book Review
Extraordinary.... Mixes whimsy and hard truth in a way that's heartbreaking.... Pungently erotic, and as affectionate as it is acidic....a perfect modern southern gothic.— Mark Rozzo
Merle Rubin - Baltimore Sun
“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.”
Mark Rozzo - The Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Extraordinary.... Mixes whimsy and hard truth in a way that's heartbreaking.... Pungently erotic, and as affectionate as it is acidic....a perfect modern southern gothic.”
Margot Livesey
“Vividly peopled, full of surprises, The Heaven of Mercury is a deeply satisfying novel.”
Larry Brown
“A novel so fine you don't want it to ever end.”
Fred Chappell
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.”
Gregory Rabassa
“The best thing to come out of the South since A Confederacy of Dunces.”
Barry Hannah
“Sort of a calm wail. Each page a deep pleasure.”
Larry Brown
A novel so fine you don't want it to ever end.
Barry Hannah
Sort of a calm wail. Each page a deep pleasure.
Margot Livesey
Vividly peopled, full of surprises, The Heaven of Mercury is a deeply satisfying novel.
Gregory Rabassa
The best thing to come out of the South since A Confederacy of Dunces.
Beth Kephart
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 attention—the way Watson does not merely invoke Faulkner and García Márquez, but seems at times to speak straight through them.
Publishers Weekly
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.
KLIATT
Set in Mercury, a small, rural town in Mississippi, this novel details the life of Finus Bates, his friends, relatives, and acquaintances as they move through the 20th century. The main thread of the story involves Finus' love for his childhood chum, Birdie Wells, but that thread is woven into a tapestry involving many others. Both marry other people, yet have feelings for each other for nearly 80 years, until Birdie's death. Their relationship and those of many of their friends and acquaintances are interrelated throughout the story. This is a literary novel in style, and is finely written. Adults will enjoy this story and all of the rich embellishments and complex undertones; most high school age teens will not be able to appreciate it. KLIATT Codes: A-Recommended for advanced students and adults. 2002, Norton, 335p., Ages 17 to adult.
— Nancy Chrismer
Library Journal
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.
Kirkus Reviews
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393324655
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 7/19/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 354
  • Sales rank: 1,089,198
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.79 (d)

Meet the Author

Brad Watson
Brad Watson teaches creative writing at the University of Wyoming, Laramie. His first collection, Last Days of the Dog-Men, won the Sue Kauffman Award for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts & Letters; his first novel, The Heaven of Mercury, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and his Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Good To Know

Watson shared his reading recommendations with Barnes & Noble.com:

"Be on the lookout for Karl Iagnemma's superb first collection of stories, On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction. Karl is brilliant and funny, and so is his fiction.

Read Silas House's new novel, A Parchment of Leaves. It's a beautiful book.

Read Richard Bausch's new novel, Hello to the Cannibals, or anything else by this important American writer; he should be a constant bestseller.

Find and reread Allen Wier's first two books, Blanco and Things About to Disappear, to find out why more of us should read his excellent and beautiful writing.

Read anything by Barry Hannah.

Read the new paperback of A False Sense of Well-Being, by Jeanne Braselton.

I could go on, but I'm trying to get you to read great books by people who I admit are friends of mine, and there are too many of them. But these really are great books by great writers. Read them, read as much as you can. Read at least one book of good fiction a month: you deserve it."

Watson recalls the first "real job" he ever held down, the summer after 9th grade: "My best friend Scotty Mills and I tended the gas pumps and outdoor beer cooler for a little corner grocery in Meridian, Mississippi. One came on at 7:00 a.m. and worked till 3:00, the other at 3:00 and worked till 10:00 or 11:00 at night. Scotty was once arrested for selling beer to 17-year-old minors, though he was but 14 himself. It was perhaps an honest mistake. We sometimes slipped into the outdoor cooler and snitched a Heineken before leaving the morning shift and going home for a nap; no one in Meridian drank Heineken in those days, and the owner never missed them. When you stepped out of the freezing cooler into the July heat after killing a Heineken, man, you drifted in a fog back over to Scotty's house across the street for a great nap in his room with the big windows, box fan roaring."

Watson's second favorite job was as a garbage man in Hollywood. He reminices, "I was the single employee of an Armenian-American named Zarko Dmirjian, who owned one truck. I drove down bad alleys at four in the morning and hauled out bins of putrid trash, but I loved working alone and driving the truck; it gave me time to daydream. I was out there to become an actor in the movies, but when I left and went home a year later, I was beginning to think about writing, instead."

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    1. Hometown:
      Wyoming
    1. Date of Birth:
      July 24, 1955
    2. Place of Birth:
      Meridian, Mississippi
    1. Education:
      Meridian Junior College; B.A., Mississippi State University, 1978; M.F.A., University of Alabama, 1985

Table of Contents

I.
Finus ex Machina 15
Cephalantus Accidentalis 22
Self-Reliance 26
Giddyup 37
Aunt Vish 44
Birdicus Urquhartimus 51
The Dead Girl 59
Finus Connubialis 72
Negro Electric 88
Discussion with the Dummy 96
A Tree Spirit 101
Woodpile 109
Wisdom 126
Blood 135
Habeas Corpus 148
Black Heart 153
Finus Inquisitus 161
Obits 176
II.
Her Remembrance of Awakened Birds 185
Finus Querulous 197
Finus Uxorious 206
Saviors 218
Selena in Ecstasy 228
Finus Homerus 237
Through the Mockingbird 252
Finus Melonius (the Ratio of Love) 264
Finus Impithicus 276
Finus Magnificus 286
III.
A Pair of Boots 293
Finus Resurrectus 303
A Lost Paradise 313
Grievous Oscar 322
Finus Infinitus 327
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2004

    If this is heaven, give me hell

    What do you say about a book whose crowning literary moment is the description of an 89-year-old man taking a dump in the bathroom? Then there¿s this lovely image of a horse: ¿A long, slow f--- flabbered from the proud black lips of Dan¿s hole, and the smoke from it too trailed off in the air.¿ Curiously, intellectuals praise The Heaven of Mercury for how it ¿illumines every accurate detail¿ and delivers ¿just-right words.¿ The Heaven of Mercury is part love story, part murder mystery, and part taste of the South. These parts combine into a dull and dreary text. The love story offers no payoff to the reader. The murder mystery fails outright. It is so loosely developed, there are no clues for the reader to pick up. In the end the omniscient narrator just tells some back story to explain the mystery. As for the taste of the South, it is bland at best. The Heaven of Mercury does make a solid showing as a feminist text. In this book the men are weak, the women are strong. Finally, The Heaven of Mercury is yet another example of how the academic mind disdains plot. Here the story is not told in a linear fashion. A character who dies in one chapter may be alive in the next. This book of 333 pages piddles along to a dubious crescendo (the bathroom scene) near page 200, then for the next 133 pages the author fills in gaps left by the first 200 pages.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2003

    Captivating on some pages, yet drawn out and pointless on others.

    I wanted so much to escape with this book. At times I was very much wrapped up in the story and language. However, at other times I felt the subplots and descriptions were disjointed and pointless. The whole necrophilia thing was odd and added nothing to the novel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 19, 2003

    Too Much!

    This book was so overwritten it's pitiful! I love Southern writers, but this was way off the deep edge.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 14, 2002

    Left me feeling unsatisfied.

    The book is very well written, but appears to me to have been written in two or three separate sessions. It is almost as if the author began the book, finished, and said, ¿I need some more content in the book¿. The book jumps from character to character, time period to time period, without any real clear direction. He describes the area (Mississippi) well, but does a poor job of having you love or hate it. He also does the same with the characters; do I hate this person or like them?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 12, 2002

    Brad Watson Hits a Homerun with First Novel

    Watson's terrific short story collection Last Days of the Dog-Men hinted at the incredible narrative powers he displays in his first novel. This powerhouse book has the courage to take us through an entire century (the 20th) with a small town (Mercury, Mississippi) and to chronicle the lives of its most intriguing citizens, living and dead. Yes, the dead play prominent roles in this joyous book. They find themselves resurrected in the act of love-making, speak to the living and serve as tour-guides, and take us on trips back and forth in time. It is the closest thing I know to an American Siddhartha (Hesse), an unimpeachable vision of the eternal continuity of life. Like all great novels, this may try your patience at times. Buy it, test the waters with one toe, two, wade in, start swimming, try not to tire, be patient, Brad Watson will carry you on his back to the far shore.

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