on December 19, 2006
This is the second book of a trilogy that begins with "Killing Mr. Watson," and ends with "Bone by Bone." If you read Killing Mr. Watson, and were fascinated by it, as many readers and critics have been, you'll be tempted to read the rest of the trilogy. Dead Man's River begins many years after E.J. Watson's death. Watson's son, Lucius, is struggling to reconstruct his father's life and death. You might have noticed in Killing Mr. Watson that the story, told by those who knew Watson, contains gaps, ambiguities, contradictions and mysteries. There's plenty of room for sequels.
Lucius finds some answers, and also uncovers new mysteries and contradictions. Along the way, you'll learn more about the many fascinating characters you first encountered as narrators in "Killing Mr. Watson." The final book in the trilogy, "Bone by Bone," tells the tale again, from the point of view of Mr. Watson.
The Mr. Watson trilogy is reminiscent of the well-known film, Rashomon, by Akira Kurosawa. It re-tells the same tale several times, from different perspectives. This is a gutsy kind of trilogy to write. A lesser author would burden the reader with repetition and excessive detail. Mathiessen, one of few authors ever to win one National Book Awards for fiction, and another for nonfiction, is up to the task, if anyone is.
Dead Man's River suffers from the usual problems found in the second book in a trilogy. It doesn't begin the story, nor end it, and it's nearly incomprehensible if you haven't read the first book. Consider, who would enjoy "The Two Towers," the second book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, if he or she had not first read "The Fellowship of the Ring," and did not intend to read "Return of the King"?
If, after reading Killing Mr. Watson, you're eager to know about Mr. Watson and the other pioneer families of that time and place, read the rest of the trilogy, in sequence. I think you'll be glad you did. I certainly am glad that I did. Matthiessen is a master of so many things -- pioneer history of Florida, diverse cultures, nature writing, environmentalism, character development, historical accuracy and detail, dead-on vernacular dialog, inventive style, and, in this trilogy, compelling mystery.
Also, in this trilogy, Mathiessen explores the nature of truth itself, as the same story is retold several times by people who all think they know the truth, though their understanding is filtered by their own perspectives, limited knowledge and vested interests.
On the other hand, if Killing Mr. Watson filled your cup, you might want to stop there. It works very well as a stand-alone novel.
on May 30, 2004
I sat down to read this book with a sense of eager anticipation, having greatly enjoyed Peter Matthiessen's first book in the Watson trilogy, "Killing Mr Watson". I put it down, nearly a month later, with a sense of profound disappointment. "Lost Man's River" is not a book in the same class as its predecessor.
"Killing Mr Watson" told the story of Edgar Watson's life in Southern Florida and his eventual death at the hands of a posse of his neighbours. "Lost Man's River" tells the story of Watson's son Lucius, a historian with both an academic and an emotional interest in finding out the truth about his father's life. (Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, while Lucius's academic interest lies in finding out the truth about his father's life, his emotional interest lies in confirming his own preconceived ideas about his father's life). By the time of the events narrated in the book (around 1960) Lucius is an elderly man. The book follows his journeys around Florida and his meetings with the surviving few people who remember Edgar Watson, including his reunion with his long-lost brother Rob.
The sentimental journeyings of a septuagenarian historian do not make for an enthralling plot; indeed, the book has a loose, episodic structure and very little in the way of coherent plot at all. In "Killing Mister Watson" the characters were vividly drawn, especially the dominating figure of Watson himself. In "Lost Man's River" there is much less in the way of characterisation. Although Watson is an ever-present thought in Lucius's mind, he obviously cannot be introduced as a character in his own right as he has been dead for fifty years. Lucius is merely a bore, and the other characters are stiff and lifeless. The old people's reminiscences of the past are tedious and confusing, and tend to get bogged down in an excess of genealogical detail. In an attempt to add to the interest of the plot, Matthiessen provides a brief love-interest for Lucius in the form of a much younger woman, but this episode struck me as very unconvincing.
Not everything about the book is bad. There are some vivid descriptions of the natural beauty of the Everglades. There is also some sharp commentary about the way in which that natural beauty has been despoiled by the modern world, and about Southern racism. Unlike most of what has preceded it, the ending is genuinely gripping, as old feuds end in violence and Lucius makes an unwelcome discovery which forces him to reassess his view of the past. Unfortunately, to get to the ending one has to wade through some very tedious passages; like some of the characters, I often felt that I was bogged down in an impenetrable swamp.
on February 22, 1998
I am an avid fan of Peter Matthiessen, and eagerly anticipated "Lost Man's River". After reading 150 to 200 pages, I began to wonder what he was getting at with the monumental absorbtion in the trivia of names, relationships, and memories. As I progressed further, waiting fruitlessly for either some fuller character development or an essential story line to take shape, my disappoinment began to mount. By the time I finished, I am saddened to report that I felt cheated. The encyplopedic attention to detail required to give full attention to the book, does not fulfill it's end, nor is the final surprise a justifiable finale to the mind boggling littany of detail to which we are exposed. Hopefully, the final volume of the trilogy will restore the interest so greatly initiated by "Killing Mr. Watson".
on May 10, 2000
I loved "Killing Mr. Watson," the first book, and thought the genealogy in it was great, though I finally did find myself making a (complex) chart of who was related to who. But even with this knowledge already in hand, "Lost Man's River" seemed to bog down. The modern parts, especially, were very forced. Sally, among others, was just not a believable character, and the sex scene made her even less believable. Moreover, when is all this set? The author hints that it was 50 years after Mr. Watson's death, which would necessarily make it 1960, and so makes Lucius age 70 and Rob--admitttedly--an octogenarian. But the tone and language, plus the attitudes towards drugs, race, sex, etc. are much closer to 1975 (at least) than 1960. Several characters are depicted as veterans of a war in Asia that "no one ever gave a damn about." Sounds more like Vietnam to me than Guadalcanal or Okinawa. Ironically (and it's a big irony) the most interesting thing about the book is the critical name change for the family that was the "Richard Hamilton" clan in the first book. In this book, the author calls them the Hardens, but it's clearly the same family--even their initials are the same. The names of all the other families are the same in both books. Why the change for this one? It can only be because this is the family that all the others believe to have some African-American ancestry. This was a big issue in the South in 1910, and it is obviously nearly as big an issue now. All the other surnames are of actual pioneer families of the Everglades: Daniels, Jenkins, Brown, Storter, Smallwood, etc. The clear inference is that today's Hamilton descendants objected to the author using their real names and thus labelling them as "passing for white" (whatever that means). It would be interesting to have Mr. Matthiessen confirm this, because it brings one of the book's significant themes into real-time focus.
on April 27, 2015
What mixed feelings I have about this book. I'm a kayaker who has paddled and camped at many of the places Matthiessen describes. His feel for the Everglades is incredible. I can read one of his paragraphs and find myself transported back on one of those quiet, yet fearsome Keys. This man know the real uniqueness of the 10,000 islands.
And, when I read the accounts of the various people interviewed, I feel like I'm listening to a skilled genealogist. Even when he describes the indescribable racism of the period, I have to admire his story-telling ability. No moralizing, just plain, simple story. .
All that being said, reading this lengthy account took two weeks of my reading time. It ambles along at a frustratingly slow pace. I suppose that is what makes the account so believable. But be prepared for a slogging, arduous read. Also be prepared to be rewarded for your efforts!
If you have ever driven yourself to near distraction trying to trace a family genealogy, with duplicate names, multiple marriages, and family migrations, you might have prepared adequately for Lost Man's River, which is, essentially, a detailed family genealogy. And though you may be fascinated by some of the characters, be prepared to do a great deal of page-flipping to try to keep all the characters all straight.
There is not much direct action. Except for the ending, the most exciting events take place in the past and surround the death of E. J. Watson when the now fifty-year-old narrator, his son Lucius, was a child. The action that takes place in the present occurs primarily through interviews forty years after E.J. Watson's death as Lucius tries to separate truth from myth.
The book is not fatally dull because of the historical, sociological, cultural, and geographical insights the author also provides. Illustrating the conflicting cultures and motivations of very poor whites, blacks, Indians,and "mixed breeds" as they hunt, fish, drink, and interact, often disastrously, in the Florida Everglades, Lost Man's River also traces the life, death, and possible salvation of a wild and much threatened natural environment.
With its large cast of characters, complex familial relationships, and carefully researched depictions of the forty year time span of the "action," this is a book of enormous reach. It is not surprising that it took the author twenty years to bring it to fruition.
on June 25, 2005
I read "Lost Man's River" nearly 10 years ago, and finished the trilogy immediately following the release of #3. I've been a repeat reader of "Snow Leopard" and "Nine Headed Dragon River" and when I saw an unknown (to me) Matthiessen title I bought it on reflex, dug in, slogged, and followed in short-order to consume "Killing Mr. Watson" and wait impatiently for "Bone by Bone." When talking with anyone in whom I detect the slightest to be a reader I'm off and gone on the magnificience of Matthiessen's capacity to immerse the reader in the heat of the swamp and stubborn mind of man. It is an ultimate fly-on-the-wall experience. You buzz around, land for a moment, flash a restless, comforting blink through hundreds of lenses, and flashing with fear, hunger and frantic sleepy nervous energy, flick to another elbow, eyebrow, lampshade, another hall of mirrors inside someone's mind. And onto the next. Endless strings of POV. Not an easy read. It's at least as confusing as any of the most critical reviewers has let on. If your expectation is smooth narrative with crisp transitions and a baggage-free punchline at the end of a perfectly dissembled string of interleaving "Arthur Hailey-esqe" sub-plots, well, no, this isn't it. Peter hasn't named it "Lost Man's River" for nothing. It's the heat. Sweltering, oppressive, unrelenting, weaving inside and out of the mind's eye of dozens of characters, dozens and dozens by the time you get through all three books, each of whom is utterly certain that they've got the story right. This is a long yarn where everybody is telling the truth. Probably in much the same way, as say, Tom DeLay is certain that he is always telling the truth. Matthiessen's accomplishment as a craftsman is the voice, the vernacular. You learn to read with a drawl quick enough, which gets to be like a buzzing in your head. Books 1 & 3 are by the far easier reads. The experience of #2 being very similar to Thomas Pynchon's "V" where the candy for the mind is in the tone, weight and timbre of language, the music of the prose, where the narrative line is possibly only be found by surrendering your search. Matthiessen's achievement is brilliant, extraordinary, precious and impossibly rare.
on December 9, 1999
In agreement with many of the other reviewers of this novel I agree the amount of characters and their lineages can be trying. However, when I manged to get even a slight idea of who was who things became much easier. I thought the novel filled in the gaps and questions left my "Killing Mr. Watson" with great clarity. Because of this I believe that the novel could not be fully appreciated without having previously read the first book of the trilogy. "Lost Man's River" made me formulate my own conclusions as to what actually happened and not until the very end did I find out what I had right and what I had wrong
on May 10, 2010
... I might be able to paddle in and out of the Everglades National Park, what's left of the ten thousand islands and the swamp described so vividly in Peter Matthiessen's "Shadow Country" trilogy, of which 'Lost Man's River' is the second book. With a lot of imagination, I might be able to visualize the plantations - driftwood shacks, mostly - of the pioneer generation of despoilers. I might catch an image of the enormous flocks of egrets and other 'plume birds' which that generation exterminated. I might be able to photograph the rotting and rusting remnants of their strivings and failings. It wouldn't be easy not to get lost, not to rot in there. But it would probably be easier than not getting lost in the meandering sloughs of this novel, which is roughly divided between rotting and rutting. Wallowing. Staggering. Stagnating. Wasting a life in the effort to redeem the waste.
"Lost Man's River" is powerfully written and powerfully unappealing. The narrative is as turgid as the muddy channels of the swamp. The central character, Lucius Watson, is obsessed - consumed - by his father's identity and fate. The father, E.J. Watson, was slain by a mob of his neighbors at the beginning and again at the end of Matthiessen's "Killing Mister Watson." Lucius thinks he wants to know what really happened, what sort of man his father really was, with perhaps the hope that the information will tell him what sort of man he is himself. Like a Faulkner novel, the trilogy tells the same story (or rather, what should be the same story but isn't) in the words of dozens of witnesses, not one of them a 'reliable' narrator. The unreliability of history, even at or especially at the smallest scale of a single man's life and death, has to be taken as one of Matthiessen's central themes. Environmental catastrophe in the making is surely another, and the horror of racism is a third.
As one negative reviewer correctly said about this book, there isn't a 'decent' human being in its pages. They are all hate-driven, drunken, violent, and lawless, with the implication that they are the prototypes of American sociopathy. This volume, of course, is all about Lucius, and we readers plod through it hoping against hope that Lucius will turn out okay, that Lucius's education and thoughtfulness will eventually make a man of him. A different, better kind of man, that is, from his father and from all of the other men around him. I suppose that's what Lucius hopes, also, as a justification for his otherwise wasted life.
E.J. Watson was a 'real-life' personage, by the way, and Peter Matthiessen must have poured months of research into preparing this trilogy. But one must not fail to note that most of the scenes of the book are fiction. Products of Matthiessen's historical imagination! The third volume, as I understand, retells the 'myth' of Watson's violence and violent death from Watson's own viewpoint. Wow. So after more than a thousand pages, the story is still unresolved. A cliffhanger. Now I HAVE to read "Bone by Bone" to get my mental kayak pointed toward home.
on August 13, 1999
Peter Mattiessen has written a snoozer of a book as a follow up to "Killing Mr. Watson." I purchased this book with enthusiasm and began reading it with keen anticipation and soon found myself bogged down in tedium as muggy and uncomfortable as any mosquito-infected hammock in the wilds of South Florida.
The author drags the reader, along with vaguely embodied Lucius, son of Mr. Watson, from one to another of complicated and excruciatingly boring genealogy lessons, painfully and pointlessly enumerating the complex web of family members, living and dead, of Mr. Watson, as well as the family members of Mr. Watson's alleged victims, members of families he married into, and the families of women upon whom he sired bastard children.
It reminds me of being in the company of a bunch of old men and women from my own rural background, who are sitting around tracing through and arguing over family history. "No, no, that wasn't a Jones he married, it was a Smith, that little Smith girl, Jessie, you know..." Ho-hum. It is bad enough to encounter this sort of boorishness from time to time in real life -- but to seek it out in fiction is a form of masochism which I hope most readers will not find appealling. Sorry, Peter, but you lost this reader this time. I'll never make it to the third novel in the string, "Bone by Bone." It was bad enough going through the life of the ultimately uninteresting Mr. Watson, body by body. "Killing Mr. Watson," was a good read. Digging up and scattering his bones was a big mistake.