Long Island Books: 'Lost Man's River'

Anne Roiphe | April 23, 1998

"Lost Man's River"
Peter Matthiessen
Random House, $26.95

"Lost Man's River," the second book of Peter Matthiessen's trilogy that winds its way through the natural and human history of South Florida, is not an easy book to read. It is, however, an extraordinary epic fiction that returns your patience with the gift of expanded experience, knowledge gained, acquaintance made with farmers and fishing people, descendants of squatters and outlaws, whose lives would be nearly impossible for most of us to imagine.

Many of them are cruel, quick to shoot, narrow-minded, clannish, short of religion, and lacking in rudimentary education. Nevertheless, despite the harshness of their lives, they move with grace and dignity in surprising ways and certainly all of them belong in this land that was once as strange and wondrous as any on earth.

Marginal Lives

The story travels through the Ten Thousand Islands off the Gulf of Mexico to Fort Myers. It takes us to islands named Panther Key, Rabbit Key Pass, Chokoloskee. It covers the history of the area from the late 1800s through the middle of this century.

And as it does so we are introduced to the large Watson family, the remnants of the Seminoles and the Osceola, the few blacks who lived precariously and often died violently on the margins of the land.

We meet the singular fishermen, bound in tight communities, who ultimately ran liquor, and poached alligators off the Park Service in order to survive, and the businessmen who disastrously sold out every bird, every tree, every human being for the profit of sugar, the profit of development, offering instead of the magnolia and the wisteria, the mullet and the egret, the spreading plague of tarred roads, ugly ranch houses that signal stripped-down, bare retirement communities.

Lifelong Quest

We see what the government itself in the oppressive form of "Park" did to the lives of the men who had once roamed the area freely, taking what they needed and leaving what they didn't. We see the gunrunners and the ladies of the town, the moonshiners and the scheming lawyers.

The story is told from many points of view as character after character speaks in his own voice, relating the same events, all of which lead to the historian-fisherman Lucius Watson along on his lifelong quest for the truth about his daddy.

E.J. Watson was shot by a lynch mob as he docked his boat before his house just after the great hurricane of 1910. Watson has become part of the local lore, remembered as a serial murderer, a man with a vicious temper who shot his farm hands rather than pay them. He is rumored to have killed the outlaw Belle Starr.

Other Memories

But his children have other memories of him, and his son Lucius compiles a list of the men who were part of the mob that killed him. Gentle and aloof, kind and shy, he spends most of his life as a fisherman living in isolation among people who distrust him because he is the son of the murdered Watson. The local people fear he may be looking for revenge.

When his older brother, now an old, dried-up drunk, returns, they go off together to try to find out the truth about their father. They talk to sisters, cousins, and the half-brother who was stunned into a lifetime of emotional frailty when as a young boy he witnessed the murder of his father.

They hear old stories about their father's friend Leslie Cox, who escaped from a chain gang and may or may not be still alive, hidden among the mangroves. All the conversations lead back into the circle of men and women who know what really happened and don't want to talk about it.

Blood Guilt

Mr. Matthiessen is dealing here with major questions of blood guilt, of our inability as Americans to accept what we have done to others in the name of progress and nationbuilding. He is also writing about fathers and sons and how the deeds of one lie on the shoulders of the other.

Through his complex tale he examines the strange way we form our myths. He describes the way the most profound evil can exist right alongside its opposite within the breast of the same man or within the same nation.

Along with this narrative theme flows another. The author describes the erosion of the land, the loss of the great bobcats in the Everglades, the farms that no longer support families but are just suppliers of pulpwood for industry.

Man Has Trampled

He describes the rackets of motorboats as compared to the shriek of a red-tailed hawk. The Spanish moss is gone. The virgin pines are gone. The alligators are almost all taken and the smugglers of guns use their old smelly skins to hide their real contraband. The red wolves, the sad plaint of titmice are rare now. The pecan trees, the killdeer, the puff ball chicks are hard to find.

Everywhere, man with his commerce has penetrated and trampled. Mr. Matthiessen writes about the natural world like an angel sent to warn us of our crimes and their inevitable consequences. He does this with a respect for man and an absolute empathy for all of creation that leaves the reader in awe.

His description of Lucius at the burial of E.J. Watson tells us how man and nature are bound together in one fate.

Nature Described

"With no river breeze to stir the dusty leaves, the burning banyan seemed to writhe and shimmer. The thick fig leaves looked black. The graveyard white and black, no color anywhere. The air swarmed with black specks, midges or soot. In the pitiless sun on the white monoliths, the shine on live oak trees, the host scent of lime and the drone of bees, his brain was smitten by a bare light."

Mr. Matthiessen describes an old prison camp where the men were locked in chain gangs and used as free labor.

". . . little sign was left but overgrown rough thorn and lianas, and shadow ruins on white limestone sand back off the roads. A pileated woodpecker's loud solitary call rang strangely in the high noon heat over the dead scrape of palmetto, in the sunny wind."

Astonishing Language

The beauty of the world is always interwoven for Mr. Matthiessen with the ugly deeds of man, man dominating, bullying, harming the life that is in the way. The sharpness of the writing, the exactness of the descriptions, makes the reader ache for his or her own lost names, places, scenes.

There's excitement enough in the plot for a movie or two, chase scenes and evil ones collaborating with dead-hearted bankers and thieves. And always there's the astonishment of the author's language:

"Clouds came from the Gulf, dragging shrouds of ocean rain across the mangrove islands and raising acrid steam from the brooding embers."

You have to stop with this book and reread some passages, letting them echo in the mind.

Death Of Decency

This book is about the legacy of racial hatreds and the harm that follows the separation and denigration of those with a drop of Indian or African blood from the white community. It is about the rape of the land and the destruction of the pride of self-sufficient men, and it is about the death of decency itself.

"He supposed he missed what he had never known, the simplicity of churchly life in a small country community, the rooted peace of living day after slow day in communion with one's forebears, in the great stillness of a Florida frontier of sparkling air and crystalline fresh water and ending one's days where one began, where one belonged."

Mr. Matthiessen is the poet master of the environment. His is not so much a political agenda as it is an observation, a prophet's call to order, a lyric brimming with wisdom if not much hope.

Despoliation

He says, "The loss of simplicity, was that it? Loss of the simple harmonies and truths, the earth's natural order and abundance? Perhaps that ruin mourned by the earth itself was the most profound of all life's losses, underlying all the rest. Not fear of death which was fear of a wasted life - but deep generic dread of the death of earth as witnessed in the despoliation of the New World, the great forests and rivers of America, the wilderness and the wild creatures, still abundant in his childhood, now fragmented and broken or bound tight by concrete, poisoned everywhere by unnameable pollutions."

To read this book you need to take the time to let the multiple relations and connections between the people become clear.

Tidal Narrative

The narrative line swells with various tides and winds backwards and forwards and often it puzzles. There are too many characters to keep them all straight but that doesn't matter because finally the story line itself becomes perfectly clear.

You need to refer back to the family charts. You need to read carefully stories repeated with slight variations again and again, and you need to let the people of this place reach you, suspend judgment, admire the genius of the writing.

Here Lucius Watson describes his brother: "Arbie looked dead - as flat and scanty as a run-over rabbit on an August highway." You have to work with this book to understand the story as it comes through indirection, hints, and long distractions.

Lonely Sorrow

This is an ambitious trilogy. Mr. Matthiessen knows about personal pain and the way men get frozen in their places and die in soul long before their bodies fail. He knows about how they drink themselves into oblivion and how they cheat and how they deceive themselves and others.

He knows about tenderness too, but the hero of this book is not used to much of that and missed his opportunity to offer it to others. There is in all these pages a quiet lonely sorrow. You hear it distinctly in this passage: "Lucius had always known - 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 pen or the passage of a lone dark bird hurrying across a twilight winter sky."

That may be true of all of us but this book will not so quickly disappear. I think perhaps it will become a part of that permanent library that becomes our proudest cultural memory.

Peter Matthiessen, who lives in Sagaponack, is a naturalist and writer, perhaps best known in these parts for the text of "Men's Lives," a documentary look at the South Fork's vanishing fishermen. The first novel in the trilogy is "Killing Mr. Watson."


Anne Roiphe, a part-time Amagansett resident, is a novelist. She also writes a column for The New York Observer.