BONE BY BONE
By Peter Matthiessen
With the publication of Bone by Bone Peter Matthiessen completes an impressive, albeit inconsistent, trilogy. The first volume, Killing Mr. Watson, made use of a medley of narrative voices to tell the turn-of-the-century story of the violent life and death of an Everglades sugar plantation operator named Edgar Watson. The second installment, Lost Man’s River, was a major disappointment, following the attempt of Watson’s son to come to grips with his father’s past. Bone by Bone, the final piece of the historical puzzle that has obsessed Matthiessen for the last twenty years, is the same story as told by the enigmatic Mr. Watson himself.
Watson was a real person, and the trilogy is grounded in the few hard facts that are known about his life. From these simple guideposts Matthiessen has re-imagined a Watson that is set against the lurid Watson gossip that has evolved over eight decades into a local myth. The result is a work that explores the making of an identity, a history, and a nation.
About halfway through the novel, Watson makes a reference to the “frontier thesis” of historian Frederick Jackson Turner. It was Turner’s belief that the American identity was created out of a response to the frontier – a challenge that brought forth a separate American character and distinctly American institutions. But by 1890 the U. S. census had officially declared the frontier closed, thus bringing America’s evolution to a terminus.
By Watson’s reckoning this was premature. “The professor who claimed there was no more frontier had never heard about the Everglades.” After living a semi-outlaw life in the Wild West (there were even rumours that he killed Belle Starr), Watson comes to the Ten Thousand Islands precisely because it is “the last American frontier.” The Everglades are a lawless, violent backwater that is also a land of opportunity for those who have the right stuff.
Matthiessen has always been interested in frontiers, in part because of what they represent as metaphors. The frontier is that fluid line dividing conscious and unconscious, advanced and primitive forces. The way they react makes history.
The frontier is also part of Watson’s split personality. On the one hand he is the progressive, entrepreneurial businessman known to the locals as the Emperor; on the other he is the savage, hard-drinking murderer “Jack” (a name he gives himself). And if it is the frontier that defines America, then Watson’s frontier identity is also symbolic – a man, like America, always starting over from scratch and trying to make himself anew.
The trick to a book like this is to take the raw matter of history and biography and give it artistic shape and narrative drive. And while Bone by Bone does have a few slow sections, it makes up for these in the boldness and size of its conception.
Though not as strong as the first Watson book, Bone by Bone manages to fulfill all of the promise in Matthiessen’s grand design, which stands comparison to Faulkner’s masterpiece Absalom, Absalom. The writing has a fullness as lush as the natural world Matthiessen’s language draws from, and the plot is controlled by a master’s hand. Matthiessen is one of those odd writers who are highly regarded but whose career has never seemed to peak – until now. With its completion, we can see the Watson trilogy as his masterpiece – a large and unforgettably powerful achievement.
Review first published October 2, 1999.