Reading Group Guide for THE HEAVEN OF MERCURY

Reading Group Guide for The Heaven of Mercury

W.W. Norton & Company



1 Barry Hannah, in a comment on Brad Watson’s first collection of stories, Last Days of the Dog-men, wrote: “Watson’s people are the wretched dreams of honorable dogs.” In this, Watson’s first novel, what seems to be his view of human—and animal—nature?

2 Would you describe Watson’s writing as earthy or lyrical? What characteristics dominate in his prose and how do they affect his portrayals of individual characters? How do elements of his style influence the book’s intermingling of the living and the dead? Does Watson’s prose evoke or suggest a larger world view?

3 How does Finus’s radio broadcast set the stage for the rest of the novel, n terms of both narrative and theme? Did Finus’s cosmic reflections strike you as profound or eccentric?

4 Some of Watson’s characters seem to have an intimate connection with a world or dimension beyond the strictly material world of the present. How does this affect their ability to relate to the “real” world? What is it about Watson’s prose that makes this “other” world seem normal and understandable to the reader? Would you describe this other dimension as magical or spiritual in a conventional sense?

5 Time, memory, and desire are traditionally construed as elements of earthly existence that are no longer relevant in the afterlife. Would you say that Watson turns that idea on its head? Is there some way in which time, memory, and desire in this novel are elements of a “life beyond” that surrounds us even while we’re living?

6 Is this identifiably a “Southern novel”? Why? How is the Southern literary tradition distinct from writing from the rest of America? Is this related to the issue of race?

7 Did you find Watson’s portraits of Vish, Creasie, and Frank offensive? Why, or why not? Is the reader invited to see these characters differently from the way the white characters in the book see, or don’t see, them? Do we get any idea of how they might see themselves?

8 How do Watson’s influences show themselves, and do they add to or subtract from the originality of his novel? Do the “ghosts” of Southern literature overwhelm his work or does he manage to keep them in their place, and how? What elements remind you of Faulkner, Welty, O’Connor, or other writers?

9 “The heaven of mercury” is the second circle of heaven in the “Paradiso” of Dante Alighieri’s fourteenth-century religious allegory, The Divine Comedy. What was Watson trying to achieve with such an allusion in the title of a novel about twentieth-century Mississippi? One reviewer commented that the title was the weakest part of the book—do you agree? What about the author’s choice to use mock Latin chapter titles—does that work with, or against, the “Southernness” of the novel?

10 Does the community in Mercury change from the beginning to the end of the novel or does it seem to be suspended in time? How, if at all, does the outside world affect the way the story plays out?

11 Fellow southern novelist Larry Brown was one of many who compared Watson’s novel not only to Faulkner but also to South American novelist and Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Marquez. What does Watson have in common with García Marquez? Are the fabulistic elements in the book examples of “magic realism,” or are they really fantasies of the individual characters? What is the role of dreaming and fantasy in this book?

12 Does Watson effectively combine an intimacy with his individual characters with a larger overview of their lives? What is gained and what is lost in his narrative strategy?

13 Is the narrator omniscient? How does the novel’s use of various points of view shape the narrative and, ultimately, the book’s view of the world, or your view of the book?

14 Finus is an old man when we are told the story of his love for Birdie Wells and of life in Mercury. Watson claims that his older relatives were the most alive of all the people he knew. Why do you think he chose Finus as the main character? How do you think his age affects the tone and pace of the book?

15 In an interview, Watson explained that when he first started writing this book, he was thinking about the idea of communion between the living and the dead. Does this novel believe in an afterlife, or transcendence? If so, of what kind?


Where, or what, is “The Heaven of Mercury”?

The title of the novel comes from Dante’s Divine Comedy, in “Paradiso.” I’m no Dante scholar, and I don’t know the “Purgatorio” or “Paradiso” books as well as I know “Inferno,” and I don’t know it as well as I used to. But early on in writing this book, when I was working with the idea of communion between the living and the dead, it occurred to me that Dante could be a model of sorts. Reading the books again I came across “The Heaven of Mercury” in “Paradiso”; I thought it a lovely and fitting title for my story, and as it had to do with betrayal, all the better. The parallels, as it turned out, are a little vague, though Finus Bates is guided, in a sense, by Birdie Urquhart’s spirit in his search for answers.

It’s also everywhere in the book. In the characters’ minds, their memories, in the presence of the dead in their waking and dreaming lives, in their communion with spirits, real or imagined, and in their ability to survive grief, loss, and rage with dignity and compassion for one another—for the most part. It is in a sense a real heaven, where those dead wander, which is near, what the character Finus Bates describes as their “presence in distorted slips of air that revealed, like the thin and vertical flaws in a lens, the always nearby regions of the dead.”

Is Mercury a real place, or a mythic one, like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpa County?

I don’t want to compare myself to Faulkner, but Mercury is like Yoknapatawpa in the sense that it is modeled after my hometown, Meridian, Mississippi, with many liberties taken. Mythic to the degree that certain elements are broadened or simplified, yes.

Your descriptions of Mercury cover the better part of a century—from about 1906 to 1989. How have times changed or not changed in that kind of Southern town?

They’ve changed a lot, even though in appearance many small Southern cities and towns seem not to have changed much. Demographics, economics, social cauldrons, these have all been modified by changes from the civil rights movements to increasing urbanization and the death of small farms, and the move away from cheap-labor manufacturing (it’s moved on to more fertile fields in developing countries).

Like the rest of the country, small towns and small cities in the South are being overrun with shopping malls, strip malls, Wal-Marts, K-Marts, and new supermarkets. The family-run hardware and lumber stores struggle or are forced out of business by Home Depot and Lowes. Restaurants fail often because people would rather eat at the chains, such as Western Sizzlin’, Applebee’s, Pizza Hut, or McDonalds.

In Meridian, many of the family cleaning businesses, paint stores, clothing stores, barber shops, lumber yards, scrap yards, bakeries, and specialty shops survive. The plumbers, builders, Peavey Electronics. I believe the newspaper, The Meridian Star, is still privately owned, though I may be mistaken. There has been a largely successful effort to revive the historic vaudeville theater downtown, though the little movie theaters (and the monumental Temple Theater, now used for special events) have given way to the chains around the downtown’s perimeter. The churches thrive, of course; the South is still largely a region that respects and practices its religion. Meridian, for one, is not without an eclectic representation, with all manner of Protestant churches, an old and respected Catholic church, and a long-established synagogue that survived a Klan bombing in 1968; there may even be a mosque there now, for all I know. I moved years ago.

One thing that’s changed, obviously, is race relations. How did that affect your portrayal of the book’s African American characters, Creasie and Frank, and their relation to their white employers?

It didn’t. 1950 is 1950, and the changes that have come since then have no bearing on the way things were then. I tried to write honestly about it. It was more difficult and risky, of course, to write from Creasie’s point of view, to write about her and Frank from their perspective. I did the best I could, as any fiction writer would, to put myself in their place when I was writing about them. If 1950 is 1950, human beings are human beings; fundamentally, we are all alike in love, loss, disappointment, greed, desire, sympathy, and so on. Of course Creasie, like the character Birdie, is modeled after a person I knew, whereas Frank was entirely invented. So it was actually a little more difficult to write about Creasie, since I had to allow her character to go beyond or transcend the limited knowledge I had about the woman who inspired her.

Race relations are of course much better in the South these days, as they are in most of the country, but like elsewhere they’re still far from perfect. There’s a residual racism that lingers in this country, and small to mid-sized Southern towns and cities are no exception to that, though it may be more obvious there because racism is more of a tradition in the South. I say that ironically, but it’s true.

The celebrated Southern tendency toward politeness has come to include racism; that is, it is there but it is not spoken of, mostly.

Faulkner’s great novel Absalom, Absalom, famously ends with Quentin Compson in a cold dorm room at Harvard protesting to his roommate, “I don’t hate the South! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!” You also left the deep South for Harvard—to teach there, after your first collection of stories, was published. What were your own feelings about the South, looking back at it from Cambridge? Did you also feel you had to defend it?

Occasionally, the need or opportunity arose. Once at a dinner party, someone mentioned hunting, and all eyes swung to me, as the token Southerner who must obviously be the resident expert on such a barbaric topic. Of course, I was, even though I’m not a very good hunter.

I do think living here has given me a broader perspective on my home region. It helps sometimes to get some distance and look back. Mostly, it helps you to understand yourself a little better through seeing your home from a different place. When you go home to visit, you see and hear things you may not have noticed before, cultural tics you took for granted, and it gives you a different perspective on yourself. That’s always good. I go home, and for the first few days I’m chafed by the Southerners I run into, their accents and manners or lack of them, their taste, their music, their cars, their big manicured lawns, the heat and humidity, the lack of things to do. But then I settle in and I love it again. I go back to New England, to Boston, and I am appalled by their particular nasal accents (some Southern accents are quite nasal, too), their gruff manners, the traffic, the noise, the crowded sidewalks, the parking nightmares, the sense that they really don’t care if you come there or not and would prefer you didn’t. But after a few days I settle in, begin to like the sense of anonymity, that my neighbors don’t know or care what I’m up to, that there are several good coffee shops, pubs, and restaurants to choose from in walking distance, and I begin to pick up on the occasional presence of a certain real Yankee charm. There are things I love and hate about both places, depending on my mood.

We’ve already referred to Faulkner twice in this discussion. Other readers compare you to Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, saying your work is funnier than O’Connor’s but darker than Welty’s. Is the great Southern literary tradition a legacy or a burden? How did it influence your writing? Who would you like most to be compared to?

If those things have been said, I’m flattered, though I’d never consider myself a better writer than either of those two, in any sense. Harder to be funnier (or darker, for that matter) than “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” or “Good Country People” or “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” If I’m darker than Miss Welty, maybe I’m just more crude. I love the lovely darkness of “The Hitchhikers,” “No Place for You, My Love,” “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” the comic darkness of something like “June Recital.” I really don’t believe I’m worthy of comparison to either writer, but I’d love to believe I’ve learned some things from them, and certainly both writers have influenced my own writing. The way Welty’s stories plumb the mysteries without simplifying them—she leaves the mystery and the wonder intact, doesn’t violate it but enhances it. O’Connor—I just wish I was nearly as smart as she was, as she is in her stories. She and Welty both, what beautiful minds. I have discovered that it is very hard to be funny in the way that O’Connor is funny; I’ve failed at trying a few times. But I do love her black humor, and the merciless way she exposes the truth in her stories. Who could not love the moment when the Misfit says the grandmother would’ve been a good woman if she’d had someone to shoot her every day of her life?

So I don’t think of the tradition as a burden at all. Thank the gods for it. I read Faulkner, O’Connor, Welty, Robert Penn Warren, and listen to their sentences as I read, try to understand their visions of the world on their own terms as well as how they may give language to my experience. I want their language and vision to inform my own, to educate me about what I already know on some level and about what I did not know before reading them. I think Eliot was right in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”; there is no way we cannot be a part of and extend a tradition, in some sense, as writers. I’m embarrassed when I see someone obviously straining to be different because they think it’s weak-minded and boring not to be different. Did Cormac McCarthy adore Faulkner? I don’t know him, but it seems to me that he did, and his first novel sounds very much like Faulkner, to me. By “Suttree,” he’d taken what he learned from Faulkner and made something entirely his own, though the influence is still obvious. Now we have writers who sound like McCarthy, and that’s okay with me. They’re learning something new from him.

One of the most beautiful aspects of the novel is the way you capture the thoughts of older people, and the physical aspects of aging. You’re not such an old guy yourself . . . how did you research that?

In the company of old people, listening to them, watching them. And by being something of an old soul, myself. I’m a cranky old man in a middle-aged body. I always loved and respected my older relatives, though, loved to listen to them talk, tell their stories, vent their anger over long-held grudges and disappointments. Most of my older relatives—thought not all—were cheerful and bright, but they all had some tough stories. These people were the most alive of all the people I knew; they lived more in the moment than young or middle-aged people, even though they loved to revisit the past.

They spoke directly, they told the truth and didn’t care about the consequences. They didn’t have time for polite lies, anymore. I loved that. If I could get away with acting like an old man all the time, I would.

So your grandmother was a model for Birdie Wells Urquhart—how do you think she’d take to your publicizing her secrets this way? If she is watching from heaven, aren’t you in trouble?

Unlike my grandmother, I don’t ascribe to the notion that people go to a heaven that is much like earth (conceived apparently by an earth-bound mind), only grander and less troubled. (See answer to question one, above.) But if Mimi’s spirit is with me, in some sense, I sense humor as well as admonishment. She used to tell what she considered awful things about herself, as well as others, and be horrified by them, and then laugh at them. Maybe you live to be ninety-three by not being so resistant to the things that happen in life, I mean by accepting them and moving on. She, for one, did not hold a grudge, even against those who had mistreated her terribly, and did not excessively mourn her losses, until her last years, when she grieved most that she was still alive while her children had already died. She complained about that, thought she was living too long. I loved her very much, still do, and she knew that I loved her.

Besides, the secrets she told me weren’t really secrets, and I invented the rest. Mimi didn’t read fiction, but I’ll never forget what she said to me after reading my first published story, which was a little bawdy: “Well, I know you’re a good boy, anyway.” She meant, “in spite of what you’ve written.”

The novel blurs the distinctions between life and death in interesting ways—most provocatively, in a scene with the undertaker’s young son that some people might find offensive—what’s that all about?

I hope not too many people find Parnell’s Grimes’s latent necrophilia (as I call it) offensive. Parnell knows his desire is wrong, perverted, grotesque, and he seeks some kind of salvation from it, which he finds in his wife, Selena (who understands him and does not condemn him). And I tried to write about Parnell’s troubling desires in a way that shows him to be a fundamentally good man, one of the most compassionate people in the novel, in spite of his problem and being a kind of weird, goodhearted fool. In a strange way, his great love for other people, his compassion, contributes to his problem. It’s a darkly comic vision, of course, this character. I enjoy certain kinds of morbid humor; I can’t be alone in that, in a country that made Edward Gorey a bestseller. Maybe Flannery O’Connor would have written about such a character, had she been born thirty or forty years later, and done a better job of it. I don’t know.

Concerning the scenes when the world of the dead and the living merge in other ways, such as when Finus sees his dead wife in a chair in his bedroom, or hears her voice through a stray cat in the graveyard, I was playing with some sort of notion about the ephemeral nature of earthly life, I think, and the sense that we commune in all kinds of ways with the dead, ways that aren’t spooky or supernatural or weird; they’re with us always, in a real sense, if we cared about them.

In the scenes with Birdie after her death, I like to think a reader can see her spirit travel as either real or as a moment of compressed time and brain travel in the moments between life and death, the moments when the body has given up and some sort of residual energy still exists in the brain. A hugely imaginative time, I would think.

How exactly do you describe the relationship between your two main characters, Finus Bates and Birdie Wells? If this is a kind of a love story, why didn’t you let them get together and live happily ever after?

I think all too often people don’t end up with the love of their lives. They end up with someone they love okay and they stick it out, or they don’t. Finus and Birdie never get together, and to some extent it’s a result of the bad timing, the odd luck of timing, that so often keeps people who seem right for each other apart. We’ve all had it happen: a love at first sight that tears our hearts out instantly, but we’re committed to someone, or they are, and we don’t act. Same with these two. It’s a shame, when that sort of thing happens. But there usually are shameful consequences, sometimes ruinous, that follow if we do act.

I didn’t have a real vision of Finus and Birdie as a couple, a vision of what their lives together would have been, until one night late in the time I was revising the book. I’d met some friends at a nice restaurant in Cambridge, and this older couple kind of shuffled up to the hostess to inquire about a table. They stood there a while, waiting, holding hands. They were older, and kind of frail, but there was something obviously beautiful about them, individually and as a couple. I had the strongest sense that these people were as much in love as when they first fell in love, and it seemed to me that they were in a sense Finus and Birdie. It added something, I think, to the last draft, seeing that couple.