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Lost Man's River, 1997
The second volume in a developing trilogy, Lost Man's River takes a long view of the same events studied close on in Killing Mr Watson (1990). On October 24th, 1910 Mr E.J.Watson was gunned down by a posse of panicky neighbours on Chokoloskee in the Ten Thousand Islands off the swampy Everglades coast of southwest Florida. This rough act of frontier justice took place in the wake of a devastating hurricane and a series of brutal murders laid, rightly or wrongly, at Watson's door on the grounds of his aggressive bearing, his conduct, and rumours about his desperado past. The earlier novel presented a vivid and powerful fictional reimagination of the Watson legend based on Matthiessen's research in the meager historical records and on extensive interviews with descendants both of the families involved in the killing and of Watson himself, who had offspring by three spouses and at least two common-law wives.
Research is the operative word underlying this also-fictionalized sequel, whose protagonist is Lucius Watson, E.J.'s third son born in 1889. Late in life, Lucius, an historian of mediocre local reknown, has taken it into his head to revive an abandoned project and make another stab at pruning away the flamboyant folklore myth surrounding his father's memory. He intends to establish Mr Watson as no more than a prominent southwest Florida pioneer who had done much to expand the cane-syrup industry. He also wants to get to the bottom of the killing and find out whether the posse had deliberately assembled and which of those present fired the first shot--inevitably the fatal shot, given Watson's prowess with guns, swift and deadly reactions, and ever-ready wariness.
Unfortunately for Lucius' endeavour, a lot of water has flown under the bridge and, with the exception of a few old folk, none of the eye-witnesses or participants are still alive and kicking. Lucius' situation, in fact, is comparable to Matthiessen's and he solves the problem by the same methods. Hence we follow Lucius around, rather like a docile party of tourists behind their guide, as he wanders about visiting scenes from his father's life in various parts of Florida and attempting to interview his own estranged relatives and descendants of the men in the posse. These last are particularly leery of him because Lucius has got something serious to avenge. Or ought to have, if he's a rightminded man. For Lucius is pitting himself against a clutch of tightly-knit and touchy back-country clans with a blood-feud mentality who find it hard to credit that, with an ominous list of posse members tucked in his pocket, he merely wants to gab about whatever their grand-dads might or might not have handed down in the family about the good old days.
Colourful characters are encountered, marvellous frontier stories are told in the local vernacular, and Lucius is reunited with his runaway older brother Rob, who has witnessed events blasting Lucius' premises to smithereens. Yes, Lucius will discover some hard facts about his father and he will finally manage to get the truth out of old Henry Short, the only black man in the posse and the one who shot Watson down, receiving Henry's deathbed confession.
All this is very fine, but there are definite drawbacks to the general concept of this novel. Although attempts are made to invigorate the 1950s storyline, such as having old Rob kidnapped by the violent Daniels clan, there is a limit to the amount of action that senior citizens like Lucius can handle and too much of the book consists of garrulous and repetitive third-hand testimony. The historian's plight, to be sure, but anyone already familiar with the luminous text of Killing Mr Watson will find lengthy portions of this sequel to be mighty slow and sloggy going. This reader is a diehard admirer of Matthiessen's work and expected anything of Lost Man's River but that it would require gritty determination to plough through. A minor note: despite two prefaces, the author fails to comment upon the abrupt metamorphosis of the mixed-blood Hamilton clan of Killing Mr Watson into the Lost Man's River Hardy clan.
The book does come alive in sustained flashes of brilliant story-telling when Matthiessen applies the bellows to the embers of his primary material. And the rewards in accurate education about an obscure niche in American history are immense. Yet one wonders longingly what Lost Man's River might have been if the author had seen fit to set it earlier in time, say during Lucius' first foiled efforts to obtain answers, before he matured into an ageing loner with a failed and inconclusive life behind him. But perhaps this middle period will be reserved in the trilogy for the exploration of a few remaining dark corners, chiefly the fate of Watson's murderous sidekick Leslie Cox whose disappearance in 1910 has still to be accounted for and whose disquieting background comes to light during Lucius' quest for information.
Surely a significant reason for Matthiessen's choice of period is his desire, indeed his burning mission, to contrast the glorious Everglades wilderness of the early 20th century with what it later became as a semi-developed park with the lawless homesteaders evicted from their hardscrabble perches in the Keys, natural species dying or extinct, and a delicate ecology irrevocably compromised. Lost Man's River is also an incontrovertible, impassioned, and pertinent manifesto on this major underlying theme.
© Wordreign, July 1999
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