"Bone by Bone"

The third installment in the Everglades trilogy revisits a lynching -- this time from the victim's point of view.

Published April 13, 1999 3:25PM (EDT)

"Bone by Bone" completes Peter Matthiessen's Everglades trilogy. In the first novel, "Killing Mr. Watson," we meet Edgar J. Watson, a shrewd and gentlemanly businessman whose sugar cane plantation produces the best syrup in Florida. Watson can tolerate and produce violence of a level even more intense than the pretty high level his Everglades neighbors can live with. He blames his overseer when the mangled bodies of two of his workers are discovered near his plantation, but in the end everybody believes Watson ordered the killings, and in the year 1910 his neighbors finally gun him down.

The story is mulled over again, like a recurring nightmare, in the second installment of the trilogy, "Lost Man's River," this time in the form of an investigation of the events mounted 50 years later by one of Watson's sons. The "what's that sound in the dark" spookiness of the first book is a little displaced here by the proliferation of plot lines. "Bone by Bone," the new and final novel, comes at the story for the first time from Watson's point of view. Unfortunately, the hard-bitten vernacular of "Killing Mr. Watson" finds no equivalent in Watson's own account. He writes in the style of an educated Southerner of his day, an orotund rhetoric derived (as Mark Twain pointed out in "Life on the Mississippi") from reading Walter Scott; only his dangerousness rescues his circumlocutions from coming across as mealy-mouthed. But his language never has the artless plaintiveness of the first book.

Right off the bat something makes us stumble over the narrator's "I," since the success of the preceding books depends largely on our seeing Watson externally. But Matthiessen gradually disarms our objections. He takes us back to Edgar's childhood, showing a boy caught between his father's beatings and his mother's hysterical provocation of them. The brutality gives rise to Edgar's alter ego, Jack Watson -- the J. of Edgar J. This Jack is the side of Watson that at 13 gets the hickory stick out of his pa's hand and thrashes him to within an inch of his life. Later, Jack plays 19th century schizoid to Edgar's ambitious bourgeois.

Since, as readers of the previous books, we know the story, the novel sometimes seems to be trudging through old business, and when it isn't -- particularly in the middle parts, with Watson going to Arkansas and then escaping from jail there and returning to Florida -- it often seems to be piling up events for their own sake. But the latter half shifts back toward the eerie energy of the first book. One of the cool, scary things about "Killing Mr. Watson" was not knowing whether Watson was as bad as his neighbors painted him. Hearing the story from Watson himself, we know pretty much what he did and didn't do. Yet Matthiessen has Watson tell enough lies to keep us off balance.

The tougher task, at which Matthiessen succeeds intermittently, is showing Watson's inability to make sense of himself, so that what we know never completely trumps what we suspect. The book's final episode finds him so bewildered that he can no longer distinguish what he's willed from what he hasn't. As he leaves his place for the last time, on his way to his fateful encounter with his neighbors, he kills a doe, intending to eat it; but "the flesh smell seeped into my sinuses, and after that, I could not get the taint of it out of my lungs." That image applies to the whole trilogy: The taint lingers after it's done.

By Roger Gathman

Roger Gathman is the editor of the webzine Calumny and Art. He lives in Austin, Texas.

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