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.)