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Book Review

Last in Trilogy Navigates Legend and Life

BONE BY BONE; by Peter Matthiessen; Random House $26.95, 410 pages

April 15, 1999|JONATHAN LEVI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Among the epigrams that introduce "Bone by Bone" is a line from John Keats: "A man's life of any worth is a continual allegory, and few eyes can see [its] mystery." The man in question--at least for Peter Matthiessen--is Edgar J. Watson, a sum of more parts than many Southerners combined. The descendant of a proud line extending back beyond the Confederacy to Thomas Jefferson, Watson was born at Clouds Creek, S.C., on Nov. 7, 1855, and died on the shore of Chokoloskee, Fla., 55 years later in a hail of gunfire.

From these two factual parentheses, and a couple of decades of sailing and snooping around the Ten Thousand Islands that form the floating world of the Everglades, Matthiessen constructed a trilogy of novels ("Bone by Bone" completes a set that began with the 1990 "Killing Mr. Watson" and the 1997 "Lost Man's River") that, on first glance, appears to spell out a simple history of Watson, his life and times. A planter and visionary, Watson settles his family among the palmettos and snakes on Lost Man's River after running from a charge of murder in the Oklahoma Territories. After a life of small successes and large rumors, Watson is shot by a mob that accuses him of dozens of murders, rapes and infanticides from South Carolina down to Key West.

But a man's life cannot be a mere bundle of facts if it is to rise to the heights of allegory. It must be the telling of the life, with all the magical ambiguity of the tale. In "Killing Mr. Watson," Matthiessen sets out the legend. In "Lost Man's River," Watson's son, Lucius, returns to Florida as a man in his 60s, with a Hamletian determination to engage the locals in an informal re-creation of the events surrounding his father's death. It is only in "Bone by Bone" that Watson himself gets a chance to take the stand and speak.

And speak he does. From early abuse at the hands of Ring-Eye Lige, his drunken coward of a father, to his later awe at the beauty of Nature, Watson tells his tale with the leisure of a man who knows the location of the ultimate punch line and is in no hurry to get there. Simple tales of frontier days in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma mix with more complex recountings of Watson's travels with his black neighbors in the twisted labyrinth of dignity and race.

And although its predecessors are fine volumes, neither prepares the reader for this masterpiece of a hurricane--Watson's own search for the mystery at the center of his own allegory. It is not only Watson's voice, but Matthiessen's authority on the tiller that pilots "Bone by Bone" through the estuary of fact and fiction. As sudden as the weather, Watson's story blows up from laconic frontier history into a squall of page-blowing frenzy. Just as quickly, the animal surges of anger and sex can ebb into the contemplation of poetry and animal.

"A certain New Englander, Miss Dickinson," Watson says, considering a gigantic alligator that menaces his property on Lost Man's River, "had concluded (God knows how) that the true nature of Nature was malevolent, whereas the famous Mr. Whitman from New York found undomesticated Nature merely detestable. . . . Only an egotistical pontificator could regard such an engine of violence without awe, or dismiss it as detestable--unless, of course, this poet was privy to some heavenly information that the Creator detested his own Creation."

Watson's great struggle is his own re-creation, the need to reinvent his life in the face of bad upbringing, nasty rumor, 19th century poetry and just plain bad luck. His Keatsian allegory is not just a struggle against the big ol' gator, the giant id of meanness and hunger for a bit of land. Like the best of our 20th century American knights, Watson recognizes that the quest is not for the Grail itself, but to discover what in tarnation is the point of all this chivalric shilly-shallying around our mortal coil.

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