Matthiessen, Peter

Watson Trilogy
Killing Mister Watson by Peter Matthiessen
Killing Mr. Watson (1990)
From Publishers Weekly
The 20th book by the extraordinarily versatile author of fiction ( At Play in the Fields of the Lord ; Far Tortuga ) and nonfiction ( The Snow Leopard ; In the Spirit of Crazy Horse ) is a curious hybrid. "As a creature from prehistory is recreated from scattered bits of bone fleshed out on an armature of theory, so my idea of Mister Watson has been reimagined from the few hard 'facts' . . . " writes Matthiessen in an introductory note. Set in the Florida Everglades a century ago, the novel is based on the legend of Edgar J. Watson, the man said to have gunned down female outlaw Belle Starr. Matthiessen gives voices to a gamut of characters who knew Watson, and while it is intended that the book read with the deadpan of an oral history, those imagined--or "reimagined"--witnesses provide a rich chorus. The book starts with the murder of Watson by a group of his neighbors. The rest of the story is a slow piecing together of the puzzle that explains how this event came to pass. We never hear directly from Watson; he takes form slowly as facets of his life emerge, until his still-opaque profile remains outlined by all we have heard. With more artistry than In Cold Blood but with some of the same concerns, this is an imaginative and haunting evocation of a time and place, and the paradox of the tenderness and brutality with which real and imagined lives are filled.
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Lost Man's River by Peter Matthiessen
Lost Man's River (1997)
From Library Journal
The brutal murder of a prominent sugarcane planter in the early 20th century was the cornerstone for Killing Mr. Watson (LJ 6/1/90), Matthiessen's first book in a trilogy about the man, the murder, and its far-reaching impact on several pioneer families in southern Florida. Fifty years after Watson's death, his son Lucius emerges from self-imposed exile, asking surviving witnesses probing questions most would rather leave unanswered. The Watson homestead is at stake, and Lucius aims to clear his father's name of the crimes attributed to him. But as Lucius investigates further, he finds it harder to cling to his version of the truth. Like the earlier book, this work depends on oral histories, and its numerous reminiscences create a rich story; however, the leisurely tone and large cast make for slow reading. Those so inclined to dive in, however, will find passages of unexpected resonance amid the gnarled family trees. Readers should peruse the first (more succinct) book to get the full story before tackling this labor of love from the famed wilderness writer. For larger fiction collections.
-?Marc A. Kloszewski, Indiana Free Lib., Pa.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Bone by Bone by Peter Matthiessen
Bone by Bone (1999)
From Publishers Weekly
This is the conclusion and capstone to Matthiessen's remarkable trilogy about the mysterious E.J. Watson, which began with Killing Mr. Watson (1991) and continued with Lost Man's River (1997). In those novels, the sons of the legendary southwest Florida entrepreneur and outlaw were engaged, at a time closer to our own, in digging out the man's story, trying to separate certifiable fact from the miasma of gossip and legend. This time, Matthiessen has given us Watson's own story in Watson's own words, and it is a book of heroic, even tragic, proportions. That story goes right back to Civil War days in South Carolina, and the terrible childhood E.J. endured at the hands of his drunken, brutal and rascally father and his remote and vindictive mother. Thus were laid the seeds of the later outbursts of violence and rage that so frequently punctuated what should have been a promising life. For Watson, as he portrays himself, is ambitious, hardworking and ever ingenious at figuring ways to make the remote Florida Everglades shores yield richesAa true pioneer spirit. He also makes clear, however, the fearful price paid for the development of wild America, not only the despoilation of the hauntingly evoked natural beauty but also the brutal disregard of any kind of human rights among the poor blacks and chain gang prisoners who bore the brunt of the exploiters' drive for wealth and power. Seldom has the profound and unthinking racism of the time (the narrative spans roughly 1860-1910) been so unsparingly presented. The narrative, though long and crowded with often bewilderingly interrelated characters, is also packed with dramatic action: many murders (including that of the legendary Belle Starr, when E.J. is temporarily resident in Indian Territory), ambushes, lynchings, drownings, jailings, a trial and a spectacular hurricane. Always Watson is striving for the respectability of wealth, always he is brought down by the conniving of his kinfolk, his tempers, his love of strong drink and his tormented inability to tolerate the lying and hypocrisy he finds everywhere around him. He is a monumental creation, and in bringing him and his amazing period to life with such vigor Matthiessen has created an unforgettable slice of deeply true and resonant American history. Author tour.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen
Shadow Country (2008) (a new rendering of the Watson trilogy)
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Matthiessen's Watson trilogy is a touchstone of modern American literature, and yet, as the author writes in a foreword of this reworking, with the publication of Killing Mister Watson, Lost Man's River and Bone by Bone, he felt, after twenty years of toil... frustrated and dissatisfied. So after six or seven years of re-creation—rewriting many passages, compressing the timeline, shortening the work by some 400 pages and fleshing out supporting cast members (notably black farmhand Henry Short)—the three books are in one volume for the first time, and the result is remarkable. Florida sugarcane farmer and infamous murderer—the latter bit according to legend, of course—Edgar J. Watson is brought to life through marvelous eyewitness accounts and journal entries from friends, family and enemies alike. Book One (formerly Killing Mister Watson) creates a vivid portrait of the untamed southwest Florida of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and recounts Watson's life—with questionable accuracy—beginning with his arrival in south Florida and replaying key events leading up to his being gunned down in the swamps. Watson, who stands accused of murdering a young couple who won't leave his land, is roundly despised and feared, so much so that parents frighten their children into obedience by threatening a visit from Watson. The second book takes place several decades after Watson's murder and relates the travails of Watson's son, Lucius, now a WWI veteran and scholar, as he tries to write a true account of his father's life. Lucius journeys back to his childhood home in search of answers from the same people who saw his father killed. As he investigates the contradictory claims and rumors (like that of a Watson Pay Day, when Watson would murder his farmhands rather than pay them), he tracks down his long-lost brother, Robert, and learns a horrible family secret. The final piece is perhaps the best, taking the form of Watson's chilling memoir. Recounting his life, from the years of paternal abuse right up until his jaw-dropping perspective on the day of his death, Watson reveals his strained relationship with his children, a personality crisis with his scabrous alter ego and the truth behind the many myths. Where Watson was a magnificent character before, he comes across as nothing short of iconic here; it's difficult to find another figure in American literature so thoroughly and convincingly portrayed. When Watson delivers his final line, it's as close as most will come to witnessing a murder. (Apr.)
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