BONE BY BONE by Peter Matthiessen


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The concluding volume of Matthiessen’s Florida trilogy (Killing Mister Watson,1990; Lost Man’s River, 1997) brings stunningly alive sugarcane farmer, patriarch, and multiple murderer E.J. Watson, whose life and crimes have been detailed by his contemporaries and descendants, including his estranged son Lucius. This time, Watson himself tells the story, beginning in South Carolina in the aftermath of the Civil War. Edgar grows up among a tense family dominated by his brutal and drunken father Elijah (“Lige”), an unregenerate racist, and fragmented by its mixed opinion about his abolitionist Uncle Selden (“The Traitor”), whose idealism exacts a heavy toll. Violently rejecting his father’s tyranny, Edgar leaves home, works on a Watson family plantation in Georgia, moves west (where he earns a reputation as “fugitive and frontier desperado” and as the probable murderer of Belle Starr), before returning to the South to build an empire near Key West as a prosperous cane merchant. This is Matthiessen’s Absalom, Absalom!: a richly imagined, compulsively readable chronicle of the progress and hard times of its powerfully imagined central figure. In strikingly cadenced prose (at times reminiscent of Robert Penn Warren’s long stately sentences), Watson—an intense autodidact who “loved to talk elaborately in the elegant English found in books, and . . . loved to tell stories”—emerges as a fascinating bundle of contradictions: a much-married husband and father hellbent on shaping a world fit for his kin to inhabit; a ruthless predator indifferent to the fragile ecology of Florida’s pristine Everglades; a child of his culture’s racial divisions forever shadowed by the “darker brother” who contains both his hidden and better selves; and a perpetrator of violence whose “outlaw” legend far outstrips the actual evil he commits. A brilliant character study, and a provocative commentary on the “capitalist energies” that built modern America. (Author tour)

Pub Date: April 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-375-50102-9
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1999


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