Lost Man’s River carries forward the intricately woven family saga, set in the Florida Everglades, that Peter Matthiessen began with his 1990 novel Killing Mister Watson. He envisions the series as a trilogy but has said in interviews that “It’s all one book. It’s just that I chopped the first third away and gave it to Random House. Eventually, I would like to see the whole thing under one cover.” The concluding volume is set for publication in late 1998. As reviewer Janet Burroway wrote in The New York Times, the project is one of “enormous ambition, laying out the interconnected lives of at least two dozen families whose fortunes and misfortunes betoken the history of the entire state, especially as those lives impinge on that of the pioneer entrepreneur, probable murderer—and certainly murdered—Edgar J. Watson.”
The seed for the project was planted when Matthiessen, at the age of seventeen, was on a boat trip through the Everglades with his father and began hearing tales of a notorious killing “that the community was still arguing about,” the author recalls. “That’s what drew me to it. You could see this myth being shaped, but there were very few hard facts to go by.”
Although the people and the landscape in the two books are much the same, Lost Man’s River and Killing Mister Watson differ substantially as fiction, both in writing style and narrative approach. Matthiessen’s story is based, however loosely, on an actual historic event, which, apparently, was as puzzling and contradictory to the people of that day as it is in the author’s retelling of it. Killing Mister Watson was largely written as a fictional form of reportage, investigating the death of E. J. Watson through the viewpoints of early Florida settlers whose ethnic and socioeconomic variety sometimes made the phrase “melting pot” seem almost an understatement but who, nonetheless, were saddled with, as the book’s liner notes put it, “the racism that infects the heart of New World history.”
The facts of both books’ central incident, Watson’s killing, are anything but ambiguous. County records show that on October 24, 1910, Watson was confronted by more than twenty armed men on a beach in front of a Chokoloskee Island general store. A medical examiner removed thirty-three pieces of lead from Watson’s corpse, but nobody was ever brought to trial for the murder. The reluctance of villagers to “come clean” about the incident, even all these years later, is apparently rooted in an almost unimaginably dense web of blood kinship (both “legitimate” and not), loyalties, and grudges—which, at one point, is described in the book as “people who are all related to each other, back door, front door, and every which way.”
Significantly, the book opens with a copy of the Watson family tree. This is not for decoration nor effect. Even the most intrepid of Matthiessen’s readers will find themselves referring back to it at some point, trying to clear up confusion over some character’s remarks about kinship. Even then, the linkages sometimes remain ambiguous.
The sixty-year-old Lucius who arrives in his old community is a knot of contradictions himself: loner, drifter, college graduate (history), commercial fisherman, hunting guide, outdoorsman with a weakness for alcohol, and melancholic bachelor who has always wanted children. The purpose of his homecoming is not as avocation but as quest—with all of that word’s connotations of obsession and excess. Under a pseudonym, he places classified ads in Florida newspapers asking for family stories and reminiscences of the early days in the Everglades on the off chance that one of them might provide some thread he can trace back to his father. However, he gets far more than he bargained for: He receives in the mail—anonymously—a copy of an old deposition filed in a Fort Myers, Florida, courthouse shortly after his father’s death. Furthermore, very early in the book, Lucius gets a surprise nighttime visit from a Mikasuki Indian named Billie Jimmie, who says he has been hired to deliver a burial urn of ashes (“Stroke of midnight,” says Billie, “them were his very words”) and invite Lucius to meet with their mysterious sender at a local bar called Gator Hook.
The odd and seemingly unrelated confluences begin to mount, as do Lucius’s questions, problems, and fears. Along the way, readers get a fascinating tour of the region’s...
(The entire section is 1836 words.)