Watson's book is for the romantic's romantic. It requires some amount of understanding to swallow a childhood infatuation soaked in desolate pragmatism but frosted in intangible spirituality. Such is the case for Finus Bates, who falls helplessly in love with Birdie Wells when he witnesses Birdie's true spirit -- in the form of a naked cartwheel one night at church camp.
It's these small, unique moments that carry the reader through the lives of Finus and Birdie, who each marry other people, despite his undeniable love for her. Finus becomes the town's morning radio show host and also the obituary writer. He enjoys the honest last-say about the town's deceased. But when Birdie dies, Finus is forced to examine not only her life but his as well.
When asked about Birdie, his speech is surprisingly like his writing -- prosaic and detailed, but not cheerful.
Behind the careful phrases and calm manner, Watson shows small signs of cynicism. It gives his voice, the literary one, more character. Perhaps it's more appropriate, seeing that his book is about death, that the omniscient narrator ought to sound a bit more jaded.
But Watson's voice, the audible one, is kind and nostalgic when he talks about his grandmother. It's filled with such appreciation that I listen carefully to hear about the woman that Watson, the pessimist, calls "extraordinary."
Margaret Maria (Maggie) Wells Watson, known to her grandchildren as Mimi, is Watson's ordinary hero. Described as "one of those Southern people who never had a conversation that wasn't in the form of storytelling," Mimi was the inspiration for the character Birdie Wells. Like the character, Mimi married early and had children; was a homemaker and "an extraordinary person [who] never let the things that did happen in her life, and some of them were pretty awful, get her down." Watson lived close to Mimi throughout much of his early life and used their conversations and Mimi's humor -- "she was really funny" -- as fodder.
According to Watson, Mimi "couldn't understand why I would want to tape record her life because it was so boring and bland." What Watson didn't record he transferred into the characterization of Birdie Wells, including Mimi's gap teeth and "her impertinent little mouth." He admits that he isn't an "eternal optimist" like Mimi but wants to be like her; "to take things in stride, to enjoy people."
In a break from his calm voice, Watson emits an assertive, confident laugh as he tells me that "being a romantic myself, you know, Finus is not too far away from me I suppose." Yet Watson is decidedly pragmatic -- perhaps a result of being a self-titled "old soul" -- when admitting, "most of us go through our lives feeling as if the cosmic timing is a bit off." While this seems to be the case for Finus and Birdie, Watson gives his story a complex spirituality when transversing through typically defined boundaries of life and death.
"Dying is a kind of process," Watson says. "Living and dying are an intertwining process ... the sense of the dead are with us."
Thus the story that seems to be the cliché case of unrequited love is more like Dante's Divine Comedy, including the title, The Heaven of Mercury, which comes from a chapter in Paradiso. Watson's unique portrayal of this lifelong friendship/infatuation reaches a deeper spiritual level, one that transcends corporal mortality.
Despite the academic allusion, this story is superbly simple. In a witty and honest voice, plus some good-natured cynicism from Finus, Watson gently molds the unfortunate circumstances in Birdie and Finus' lives into symbolic restitution after death.
What differentiates The Heaven of Mercury from other similarly themed books is the unique characterization of Mercury, Miss., a fictional site based on Watson's own hometown. In long, saturated sentences -- pregnant with an appreciation for the South that only a few can truly understand -- vibrant characters are introduced for brief moments at a time creating depth and hilarity in a story that would otherwise teeter on depressing. Characters like Parnell Grimes, a latent necrophiliac borne from Watson's "twisted imagination," and Euple Scarbrough, a man full of odd knowledge about beans, create lovely vignettes that combine stories from Mimi and Watson's own imaginative forays.
Watson makes heroic the ordinary people of a small town and allows the reader to savor these people. The book is filled with small colloquial events in bite-sized morsels that pique an ever-salivating tongue. What Watson provides is more than sufficient.
If you want a gripping plot, look elsewhere. In The Heaven of Mercury, like Watson's native speech, things are slow-paced and detailed. Characters and chapters melt into some communal story that takes place neither in their lives nor in their deaths -- but somewhere in between.