LIKE HIS 1990 bestseller, Killing Mister Watson, Peter Matthiessen's latest novel concerns itself with the quasi-fictional figure of E. J. Watson, the Everglades luminary and probable serial killer who died at the hands of a lynch mob in 1910. Lost Man's River revisits the circumstances of Watson's demise, only this time from the perspective of the Watson family historian, Lucius Watson.
Lucius makes his inquiries against the baroque background of the Florida Everglades in mid century. Smuggling, kidnapping, and casual homicide all come with the territory...not to mention killer crocs, fantastic fishing, and a million nooks and crannies where a man could lose himself from the outside world for good. But things aren't what they used to be. Big Sugar has done its best to turn rich biology into profitable monoculture, and the wildness of the place seems to be ebbing with the tide. Environmentalism isn't doing anyone much good, either: The locals talk about the advent of Everglades National Park (in 1947) as though it were the arrival of a foreign army of occupation.
None of these things matters to Lucius Watson, who's caught up in his monomaniacal quest to figure out who killed his daddy. All Lucius's life, he's lived among people who whisper about his father, rehashing the stories about the old man's murderous ways. One legend has it the old man killed 55 people, one for each year of his life. The stories gnaw at Lucius, driving him to keep digging for the "truth," or at least a version of the truth that's kinder to his late father's memory.
Complicating matters is the fact that a lot of members of the posse that killed E.J. are still around, and some react poorly to Lucius's questions. The old-timers are especially unhelpful; for backwoods types, they display a remarkably postmodern appreciation for the fluidity of historical fact:
"Still diggin up your poor dead daddy, Lucius? What you want with him?" Speck gnawed off a chaw of bread and masticated with his mouth open, awaiting him.
"I want the truth, I guess."
"You want the truth. Where you aim to find it at?" He pointed his fork at Andy, then Whidden, and finally at his own chest. "He'll tell you his truth, he'll tell his, I'll give you another. Which one you aim to settle for and make your peace with?"
These people also offer more down-to-earth insights, such as the distinct possibility that Lucius's research will culminate in him getting his head shot off. More than once, someone holding a firearm warns Lucius to "let sleepin dogs lie."
Besides the generalized vileness and violence, Matthiessen's Everglades seems to be the kind of place where everybody is related, often in unexpected ways. It's a moonshine-swilling, croc-infested version of the inbred New York high society described in Edith Wharton novels. This means Lucius--and the reader--spends much of the novel sitting through encyclopedic recitations of family lore. Much of it reads like the Book of Deuteronomy: Long stretches of So-And-So beget So-And-So, punctuated by occasional violence. (The violence, it should be noted, is very gratifying, given Matthiessen's flair for naturalistic descriptions that verge on the ripe.) Things are further complicated by shifting identities, as the names Watson, Collins, and Cox shuffle almost interchangeably among a wide cast of characters, sometimes as first names, sometimes as surnames, sometimes hidden away as a tell-tale middle initial.
Matthiessen's decision to include such a swamp of unfiltered genealogical data seems vaguely malicious. It's as if he wants to make sure the reader experiences in real time the drudgery of Lucius's research. Should the reader have a low tolerance for this sort of role-playing--if, for example, he was the kind of child who hid out in the car during family reunions rather than endure reminiscences about Aunt Ernestine--then this technique falls flat.
The reader who sticks it out, though, gradually finds himself sucked into Lucius's world, and old Florida, like Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, reveals itself as a place mired in its history. White people fume about Reconstruction 80 years after the fact. Blacks can't outrun the memory of their ancestors in chains. Environmentalists fixate on restoring the Everglades to its pristine condition, a pipe dream that keeps them from finding practical ways to keep the park from deteriorating further. History--to resort to the inevitable metaphor--is a yawning Florida sinkhole, and anyone who lives too close is doomed to get sucked down.
Latter-day Americans, we're told, don't have a sense of history; it's a commonplace observation, but a true one. And a spell in Matthiessen's claustrophobic Everglades suggests this might not be such a bad thing. Perhaps it's even a blessing in disguise: After all, there's something to be said for the freedom to dump the past, move to Seattle, and cross unsavory relatives off the Christmas list. Call it the inalienable American right to let sleepin' dogs lie.