New York Times Book Review
Lost Man's Riverby Peter Matthiessen
When his novel Killing Mister Watson was published in 1990, the reviews were extraordinary. It was heralded as "a marvel of invention . . . a virtuoso performance" (The New York Times Book Review) and a "novel [that] stands with the best that our nation has produced as literature" (Los Angeles Times Book Review). Now Peter Matthiessen brings us the second novel in his Watson trilogy, a project that has been nearly twenty years in the writing. A story of epic scope and ambition, Lost Man's River confronts the primal relationship between a dangerous father and his desperate sons and the ways in which his death has shaped their lives.
Lucius Watson is obsessed with learning the truth about his father. Who was E. J. Watson? Was he a devoted family man, an inspired farmer, a man of progress and vision? Or was he a cold-blooded murderer and amoral opportunist? Were his neighbors driven to kill him out of fear? Or was it envy? And if Watson was a killer, should the neighbors fear the obsessed Lucius when he returns to live among them and ask questions?
The characters in this tale are men and women molded by the harsh elements of the Florida Everglades--an isolated breed, descendants of renegades and pioneers, who have only their grit, instinct, and tradition to wield against the obliterating forces of twentieth-century progress: Speck Daniels, moonshiner and alligator poacher turned gunrunner; Sally Brown, who struggles to escape the racism and shame of her local family; R. B. Collins, known as Chicken, crippled by drink and rage, who is the custodian of Watson secrets; Watson Dyer, the unacknowledged namesake with designs on the remote Watson homestead hidden in the wild rivers; and Henry Short, a black man and unwilling member of the group of armed island men who awaited E. J. Watson in the silent twilight. Only a storyteller of Peter Matthiessen's dazzling artistry could capture the beauty and strangeness of life on this lawless frontier while probing deeply into its underlying tragedy: the brutal destruction of the land in the name of progress, and the racism that infects the heart of New World history.
New York Times Book Review
Lost Man's River is the second of a trilogy of novels by Peter Matthiessen about southwest Florida in the early part of this century. Matthiessen is clearly fascinated by the hard-drinking, independent, violent fishermen, gator hunters and sugar planters of the time and place. He focuses here on E.J. Watson, also known as "Bloody" Watson -- a leading Florida planter reputed to have committed several murders, who is finally murdered in turn by a posse of his neighbors' friends. Like most of the rumors concerning this legendary figure, the tale is vague and contradictory, and E.J.'s son Lucius makes it his life's work to sort out exactly who killed his father and why.
Lucius, who loved and admired his father, is also out to prove that E.J. never really did any of the awful things attributed to him -- although this is a manifestly untenable position. Still, he goes around interviewing and reinterviewing those who knew the guy, and a picture quickly emerges of a powerful, dynamic, appealing, capricious, brutal figure -- part man and part legend.
The problem with all this is that the interviews are so much alike that it's hard for the reader to share Lucius' level of interest. We get one story after another of Watson's misdeeds, or of his charm, or of the early life of his sidekick, Leslie Cox, and it keeps adding up to the same picture every time. Furthermore, the interviewees are so much alike that I gave up trying to keep them straight. Most of them are related to one another and to Lucius somehow, but their fascination with every reclaimed twig of the family tree, every date of birth and every shadowy photograph is hard to share. In the author's note, Matthiessen tells us that the book is based on a real E.J. Watson who "has been reimagined from the few hard facts -- census and marriage records, dates on gravestones, and the like." But we don't need to participate in every shred of that historical research with Lucius as a stand-in for the author. If Matthiessen wants to tell the story of Watson, let him go ahead and tell it! That would make a novel I'd be happy to read.
The book does offer a few present-time plots -- a new romance for Lucius and a rediscovered one; a reunion with a long lost brother; an unlikely kidnapping. But even these events feel mechanical and aren't particularly engaging. There is, as always with Matthiessen, some terrific writing, and the evocation of the tangle of Florida history and myth and swampland can be potent, but there is only one section of the book -- a letter to Lucius from his brother Rob -- where event and style and theme come together in a powerful and seamless bit of narrative. This letter shows what the novel might have been had it been conceived not as an intricate, mosaic meditation on the meaning of legend and history, but, in keeping with the title, as a strong, irresistible river of story. -- Salon
Matthiessen's (African Silences) latest is in many ways a sequel to his 1990 novel, Killing Mister Watson. In that work, the violent, vigorous figure of Edgar Watson dominated the action. A settler in the still-wild Everglades in the early years of the century, Edgar, with his reputation as a killer, was both respected and feared by his neighbors. Then, in 1910, died during a confrontation with a posse. But who actually fired the fatal shot? Had Edgar fired first? And was he in fact a murderer? His son Lucius, an academic, has tried repeatedly to escape from his father's lengthy shadow. Once again, in the '50s, Lucius is drawn reluctantly back into the struggle to puzzle out what his father was when a cache of documents about him comes to light. In the company of some of his father's cronies and a few of his bitter enemies, all of them old men nursing grudges and powerful recollections of frontier days in the Everglades, Lucius travels ever deeper into the wilderness. Along the way he hears some extraordinary tales about the lives of the local farmers, hunters, smugglers, and moonshiners, assembles a moving portrait of the destruction of the fragile ecosystem of the Everglades, and finally discovers the painful, complex truth about his father's life and death. Lucius' long, complex relationship with his father's memory is brilliantly handled, as is the portrait of the fate of the Everglades, its wildlife, and its tough, idiosyncratic inhabitants. Interweaving a lament for the lost wilderness, a shrewd, persuasive study of character, and a powerful meditation on the sources of American violence, Matthiessen has produced one of the best novels of recent years.
Meet the Author
Peter Matthiessen was born in New York City in 1927 and had already begun his writing career by the time he graduated from Yale University in 1950. The following year, he was a founder of The Paris Review. Besides At Play in the Fields of the Lord, which was nominated for the National Book Award, he has published six other works of fiction, including Far Tortuga and Killing Mister Watson. Mr. Matthiessen's parallel career as a naturalist and explorer has resulted in numerous widely acclaimed books of nonfiction, among them The Tree Where Man Was Born, which was nominated for the National Book Award, and The Snow Leopard, which won it.
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