Book Review 

Bone by Bone
by Peter Matthiessen

New York: Random House, 1999

© Jane Anderson Jones
all rights reserved

          Peter Matthiessen has written the story of Edgar Watson twice before. In Killing Mr. Watson (1990), the story was narrated by a variety of inhabitants of Florida's Ten Thousand Islands who had had more or less contact with Mr. Watson during his sojourns there. The collective voice of the community with its commentary, questions, and speculations served to create a myth of the man whom they finally had to murder to protect themselves. The myth and the man haunt Lucius Watson, youngest son of Edgar Watson's second marriage, and he sets out to find the truth about his father, and himself, in Lost Man's River (1997). Bone by Bone is Edgar Watson's own account of his life.

          Edgar Watson grew up in the post-bellum South, the son of an impoverished southern belle and the black-sheep renegade of a prominent plantation family. His father, "Ring-Eye" Lige Watson, served dishonorably in the Confederate forces of the Civil War while his mother, Ellen Addison Watson, languished in genteel poverty at home. When "Ring-Eye" returned home from the war, the veteran became a member of a marauding gang set on lynching black men and harassing anyone of a more tolerant persuasion, including Ellen's cousin, Selden Tilghman. Ring-Eye Lige's drunken rages, provoked in part by his exasperated and righteous wife, were inevitably exercised upon his young son, Edgar -- whose pain and anger retreated into an alter ego dubbed "Jack" Watson. Inevitably, the son had to defend himself from the predatory violence of his father. His mother and sister Minnie fled to a relative in Ichetucknee, Florida. Unable to escape the taint of his father's violence and establish himself within the plantation community, Edgar joined his mother and sister. The conflicted product of his upbringing, the young man values hard work, family honor and loyalty, and respect bred from fear, position, and racial superiority. He is charismatic, ambitious and bold, and, very dangerous to anyone or anything that he deems a threat to his survival or honor.

          Matthiessen's fictional universe in the Watson trilogy is, at once, deterministic, naturalistic and existentialist. His characters cannot escape from being born into the social and economic society that they inhabit; they are creatures of the natural environment that surrounds them, and, yet, they are ultimately responsible for the actions that determine their lives. None more so than Edgar Watson -- he is a creature formed by his ancestral Scots-Irish tribalism, by Southern pride and racism, by American individualism and capitalist ambition, and by a desperate need for love and respect -- or perhaps, more significantly, for respect and love.

          Edgar is softened and undone by first love. Ann Mary "Charlie, my Darling" Collins teases and pleases Edgar. She introduces him to the beauties of nature, a nature that he depended upon for his survival, but which he had never regarded aesthetically. As only young lovers can, they discover the wonders of their own sexuality. At sixteen, less than a year after Charlie and Edgar married, she died in childbirth. Had Charlie lived, would Edgar have become a civilized, respectable family man? Watson wants to believe so -- " Charlie my Darling had taken with her my last hope of Heaven." But Edgar retreats into drunken despair and violence, leaving his unnamed "Son Born" to be cared for by Charlie's parents.

          According to Watson's account of the next eight years, he caroused and whored himself into a notorious reprobate, often taken over by the violent Jack side of his personality. Yet by the time he was thirty, he had remarried -- a minister's daughter, Jane "Mandy" Dyal, and become the father of two more children. At Mandy's urgings, Edgar had even reclaimed his eldest son and renamed him Robert after an illustrious ancestor. Although he labors as a successful farmer to support his new family, Watson cannot avoid situations that draw him into trouble. His pride is too easily wounded and his honor too often challenged. Eventually he is implicated in a murder and evicted from his farm -- the family heads out to the Indian Territories to start over.

          The man who wanted to become a gentleman farmer becomes an outlaw. Jailed for complicity in the murder of Belle Starr, he escapes back to Florida. In Arcadia, he shoots down a "bad actor" named Quinn Bass and flees to the wilds of America's last frontier -- the Everglades. Amongst a population of outlaws, outsiders and outlanders, Watson appropriates an island at Chatham Bend on which he builds the finest house in the Ten Thousand Islands and sets up a sugar plantation and syrup business. Ranging between Key West and Tampa, he becomes friendly with Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, drainer of the Eastern Everglades and erstwhile governor of Florida. He admires the entrepreneurism and labor practices of the robber barons, especially Henry Flagler who had no qualms about sending in goons to quell striking workers on his railroad being built down the East Coast of Florida. His dream is the nineteenth-century American dream -- to conquer the wilderness, to master nature and to set up an empire; to become rich, respectable and respected. Before Jay Gatsby and Don Corleone, Edgar Watson was willing to do whatever he deemed necessary to achieve his goals. But he is haunted by his own individual destructive disposition and the predatory disposition of that American dream.

          Edgar Watson claims he wants to be a good citizen. He declares near the end, " I have wanted to be an honest and upright citizen all my life, and respect the law as well as I am able." But this declaration is sheer self-delusion. The only laws that Watson has respected are the laws of survival, family honor and paying his bills on time. "Ladies sometimes ask why such an amiable man has so often found himself in so much trouble. And I say Ma'am, I don't go looking for trouble -- here I let my voice go soft, lower my lids a little, tragic and mysterious -- but when trouble comes to me, why I take care of it."

         Trouble comes often to Watson in family feuds, in drunken brawls and from rebellious laborers, who want to be paid for their labor. He is a master of rationalizing the means he uses to take of trouble. On one level, Edgar Watson is the Machiavel of his little Everglades society -- a twisted Prospero who wants to work transforming magic on the swamp.

          Oddly enough, Watson's singular narration in Bone by Bone moves outside the very real communal and ecological concerns in Killing Mr. Watson. The first novel in Matthiessen's trilogy is drenched in the wildness of the Everglades -- the horrific slaughter of the bird population at the turn of the century, the marginal but persistent survival of the Seminole, the hardscrabble existence of the fishermen and farmers at the edges of civilization, and the accommodations of a racially-mixed population to coexist. It is a naturalistic and deterministic novel in that the multiple narrators are responding to both the external environment and to internal stresses and drives that they cannot control and do not really understand. Lost Man's River is an Oedipal mystery story. Bone by Bone delves both into the psychological makeup of a mass murderer and the historical circumstances that helped to shape that psyche.

          Neither Matthiessen nor Watson himself explicitly blames his "upbringing" for his criminal tendencies. Certainly, there is the alter ego "Jack" motif that plays to a schizophrenic, Freudian interpretation of Watson's identity. Near the end of his life, Watson admits, "It was time to face the truth about Jack Watson. E. J. Watson was Jack Watson or had become Jack Watson long ago, and probably the two were never different." But the reader never really believes that Jack Watson has taken over Edgar -- rather, Edgar the loving husband and doting father, the frugal and careful farmer, the square-dealing trader has courted and allowed "Jack," the tribal chieftain, the drunken swaggerer, the plantation overseer to become the ruling aspect of his being. But he chooses to do so, and he is aware of his terrible choices, at least intermittently, throughout the novel. Perhaps, most poignantly, he realizes that he has driven his sons away. "Lucius left the Bend for good on the same day I got back from Key West, throwing his stuff into his boat, disgusted.…. He was departing without explanation, just as Rob had done. This was not like him. I was angry, wounded, hurt, more than I would admit to anyone…." What he has, in their place, are two marauding young men, Dutchy Melville and Leslie Cox, who idolize the romantic reputation of the quick-shooting outlaw, Mr. Watson. These young disciples are to be Watson's final undoing.

          Bone by Bone is a tale of the Wild West -- but the Wild West here is the Gulf Coast of Florida. Florida's history is one that has been much neglected by American historians. Florida doesn't really fit into the neat categories of early colonies (although the first European city founded in the United States is St. Augustine) or the South (despite the fact that Florida joined the Confederacy, its inhabitants were never really regarded as "Southerners") or the frontier (even considering that the Seminole Wars cost the U.S. Army more in material and lives than all the other Indian wars combined). Florida is an anomaly -- its colonizers were Spanish, its Indians harbored runaway slaves, its settlers came first from impoverished Southern states and then from Northerners seeking Paradise. Its mosquitoes, reptiles, humidity and hurricanes discouraged the significant growth of population until the twentieth-century inventions of air-conditioning and chemical pest control. To be a Floridian, one must let Florida inhabit one's skin -- to conquer Florida is to destroy her.

          Undoubtedly, the world is fortunate that Edgar Watson failed -- had his dreams at the turn of the Twentieth Century to create a sugar empire in the western Everglades come to fruition, there would be no Everglades at all to save at the turn of Twenty-first Century.

Parts of this review were originally published in a different form in 
1999 Magill's Literary Annual


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