In Bone by Bone, the final chapter of Peter Matthiessen's Everglades trilogy, the man known variously as "Desperado" and "Emperor" Watson finally tells his own story--and a hard, ruthless, and singularly bloody tale it is. Brought up in the chaotic aftermath of the Civil War, Watson flees South Carolina after he's tagged for a murder he didn't commit. Bone by Bone follows his exile in the Indian Territories, his arrest for the murder of Belle Star, and his years in Florida, where he struggles to carve a sugar-cane empire out of the Everglades before being gunned down by a howling mob. "There's some that would say that Edgar Watson is a bad man by nature," he muses near the end of his life, but later declares, "I don't believe that men are born with a bad nature." So is Watson's fate nature or nurture? Is he a killer born or a killer made? This question lies at the heart of Matthiessen's tale as well as its precursors, Killing Mister Watson and Lost Man's River. Answering it would mean nothing less than answering the problem of evil itself.
In this case, the evil is inextricably twined with the good. Ed Watson loves his wives, a good laugh, and at least some of his children; he also murders and betrays employees and friends, all the while insisting that he "wanted to be an honest and upright citizen all my life." Somehow--and this is only one of Matthiessen's great achievements--the reader believes him. The reader also believes Watson's other defense: his crimes are no different from those of the great robber barons. His uncle, for instance, quotes South Carolina Governor James Hammond: "Sir, what is it that constitutes character, popularity, and power in the United States? Sir, it is property, and that only!" It is for property that Watson destroys himself and all those around him; it is for property that his son's beloved Everglades are hunted, fished, drained, and cleared to the brink of destruction. Bone by Bone is a distinctively American tragedy, as outsized and ambitious as E.J. Watson himself. --Mary Park