For Matthiessen and Lucius, Mister Watson Hard to Follow

Lost Man’s River , by Peter Matthiessen. Random House, 539 pages, $26.95.

Peter Matthiessen is something of a hero to Green-tinted lefties who like to think that passionate convictions about threatened wildlife and dispossessed peoples can thrive in the same brain alongside refined artistic instincts and critical intelligence. Imagine a mind-meld of T.S. Eliot and Jacques Cousteau. That’s more or less Mr. Matthiessen, someone who can turn out novels as finely made as At Play in the Fields of the Lord or Far Tortuga , agitate on behalf of Native Americans or the Bonackers of Long Island’s South Fork, and movingly lament the inexorable degradation of exotic ecosystems he has personally explored.

As a Green-tinted lefty who likes to think that passionate convictions, etc., I’m very sorry to report that Mr. Matthiessen’s new novel is long and dreadful. Wouldn’t it be better to cloak the hero’s missteps in silence? Yes, perhaps-but there’s a lesson to be learned here.

Seven years ago, Mr. Matthiessen published Killing Mister Watson . The fruit, he announced, of six years of research, it’s a novel that “reimagines” an historical figure who had passed into legend: E.J. Watson, a pioneer in southwest Florida who was gunned down by a crowd of his neighbors on Oct. 24, 1910. Did the buccaneering Watson deserve his fate? Was he himself a killer, or merely the victim of rumor and envy? A historian picks over the skimpy facts, and a chorus of friends and enemies give evidence. Mr. Matthiessen beautifully orchestrates the voices of his invented oral history; he layers them like a madrigal and produces a powerful piece of work, at once wonderfully human and pinpoint precise. I look back on that novel as a modernist pleasure machine. Collate the shifting perspectives, and you glimpse a truth about a killing and a truth about truth.

Killing Mister Watson has bits of Joseph Conrad and William Faulkner to it (the overheated Southern setting, the morally ambiguous, larger-than-life protagonist), and a little Clint Eastwood thrown in for good measure. The borrowed bits don’t distract from the obvious fact that Watson’s story is a perfect fit for Mr. Matthiessen, a nexus of his habitual concerns: a fragile wilderness rapaciously exploited; a native race displaced; rough, lawless pioneers scratching out a living at the liminal edge between land and sea. The rich beauty of the Everglades and the Ten Thousand Islands, nearly pristine at the turn of the century, is America unspoiled-an ideal backdrop for the greed and righteousness and brutality that will spoil America. Watson’s demise has a mythic feel to it, the distant rumble of crashing archetypes. The killing illustrates, among other things, how the sacrifice of a scapegoat (in this case, a guilty one) binds a community that has been fractured by violence.

Lost Man’s River is the same novel in bloated, incoherent form. It’s supposed to be a sequel to Killing Mister Watson , the second installment in a projected trilogy. Most sequels take up where the last volume left off. This one begins back at the beginning-and goes nowhere. It gathers various descendants of Edgar Watson, and the descendants of his friends and enemies, and chews over the same old material, a vast, sloppy, ruminative chew, unlovely to behold and wearying to the reader. The lesson to be learned is that even stories with mythic reverb get old.

Lost Man’s River reads like the footnotes to Killing Mister Watson , or a collection of passages cut from an elephantine first draft and pasted together in a blind rush. The glue that ought to bind the whole is Lucius Watson, who was just a young man when his father was ventilated by 30-odd bullets. Since then, Lucius has been “brooding,” Hamlet-like, “about his murdered father.” He drinks too much and dabbles in history; he compiles a list of the “Watson Posse,” the names of the men who gunned down Dad. “Try as he would to be ‘one of the boys,’” Mr. Matthiessen writes, “he was hobbled by introspection, guilt, and melancholy.” Lucius fantasizes about “Southern honor” and “honorable revenge” but does nothing.

Eager to clear the Watson name, to banish the rumors that earned his dad the epithet “Bloody” Watson, Lucius puts the past under a microscope. In order to produce a definitive biography, he collects exact dates from court records and tombstones; sometimes he nails down the precise hour of day: We learn, for example, that Leslie Cox, Watson’s foreman and possibly his accomplice in murder, was married at 3:00 P.M. on Thursday, Oct. 14, 1909. Lucius is ready to interview anyone who’ll tell him anything at all about his paternal unit’s death or darker deeds. That’s what he’s up to when we meet him on page 5, and what he’s still up to more than 500 pages later.

All the “present-day” action in the novel, including brief, implausible casual sex, three shots fired at a car’s tires and the fire-bombing of a house-all this gripping action occurs over the course of about one week sometime between 1950 and 1965. A rickety pile of internal evidence suggests 1962, but you could make a case for any year within that 15-year range. With one eye we look into a microscope, with the other into the wrong end of a telescope. Vertigo and headache.

Why the woozy time frame? Mr. Matthiessen seems to have wanted to set the novel in the 60′s. He makes Lucius smoke a joint and engage in the aforementioned coitus. Those things only happened in the 60′s, right? He makes his Hamlet-like historian tangle extensively with a crew of damaged and deranged veterans, boys who got “mangled up in some stupid Asia war that nobody give a shit about in the first place.” Korea? Vietnam? Why do we have to guess? If the novel belongs to the 60′s, we bump up against the inconvenient “historical” fact that Lucius was born in 1889 and his older brother Rob, a feisty drunk who tags along everywhere, was born in 1879-which makes for a distinctly geriatric duo. If the novel belongs to the 50′s, then anachronisms and distortions of chronology abound. So Mr. Matthiessen opted for the sloppy solution of accordion time.

I’m ready to forgive almost anything if the writing is good, but Lost Man’s River denies us even that pleasure. Here’s a passage, fairly typical, about Lucius’ frustrated attempts to reach a half-sister he hasn’t seen in half a century: “Summoning forth this secretive creature was like whistling to an unknown bird hid in the leaves, to judge from the scared and flighty silence that returned to him like the echo of a shot across the miles of silent swamp, red hill and muddy river.” And here’s a load of Faulknerian hokum: “Lucius had always known-or known, at least, since October of 1910-that in the end there was no sanctuary except free self-relinquishment into the eternal light of transience and change, leaving no more trace than the blown dust of an old mushroom or the glimmer of a swift minnow in a sunlit sea or the passage of a lone dark bird hurrying across a twilight winter sky.” The mushroom dust is good; the rest just seems desperate, as though Mr. Matthiessen were frantically boasting of his naturalist bona fides.

As for the moral of the story, this time around it seems that the victim is not E.J. Watson but southwest Florida. The culprit is Big Business, aided and abetted by the Federal Government and greedy lawyers; the plot, such as it is, turns out to be a development scheme.

This sort of predictable result gives Green-tinted lefties a bad name.