The heart of a murderer searching for its reasons

The cover of a new book about juvenile crime made me pause. It's called "Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent," by James Garbarino (Free Press). On the front are two sweet looking kids about eight years old. One's holding a shotgun to the other's head.

In a period of rapidly falling crime rates, incidents of juvenile violence are even more perplexing. The past year has produced several trenchant books on the tribulations of young men, a male echo of the warning sound about young women broadcast by Mary Pipher's "Reviving Ophelia" in 1994.

Peter Matthiessen isn't a social worker, a psychiatrist, or a youth counselor. And his new novel is a work of art, not sociology. But "Bone by Bone," the brutal story of how a reluctant murderer is made, conveys the kind of Shakespearean insight into human nature that outstrips what nonfiction can do.

The novel breaks open with a long chapter that's almost as traumatic for the reader as for the young narrator. One of Edgar Watson's first memories is of his uncles lynching a runaway slave toward the end of the Civil War.

Shamed by his "unmanly feelings" of pity, Edgar thinks, "As for my fear, it was nothing more than common dread of swamps and labyrinths, of dusk, of death - the shadow places. Yet poor black Joseph sprawled unburied in the roots, losing all shape and semblance to the coming night, was an image etched in my mind's eye all my life."

Over the next 50 years, we see the effects of that early exposure to violence. Edgar's budding conscience is shredded by the conflicting attitudes of a region decimated by war, poisoned by racism, and struggling to ignore the equality of all people.

His drunken father, Ring-Eye Lige, infects Edgar with a deadly code of honor even while beating him almost to death. When his father invites him to another lynching, the young boy admits, "My pride in my father ... was edged with deep confusion and misgiving."

Woven into the frayed edges of a powerful South Carolina clan, Edgar instinctively feels the nobility of his despised cousin Selden Tilghman, who pays a ghastly price for opposing the racial violence he realizes is thwarting the South's recovery.

Psychologically fractured by these opposing models of manhood and afraid for his life, Edgar finally runs away from his family. But throughout this pitiless story, Edgar's thinly repressed anger conspires to ruin his chances in life. In this grinding blend of disposition and circumstance, "Bone by Bone" rises to the level of classic tragedy.

"I howled at the high heavens, but to whom?" Edgar asks. "Alone on the highroad in the leaden light, I knew my life had lost its purchase. The future was flying away forever, like a dark bird crossing distant woods. Not knowing where to turn, with no one to confide in, I hurried onward."

Moving to Florida at the turn of the century, the story drives through a bewildering collection of his wives, relatives, employees, and enemies. It's a remarkable look at the Southern frontier, a land that remained wild and violent long after the Western frontier settled down.

Edgar eventually becomes a syrup manufacturer, but murders and rumors of murders continue to leach his reputation and throw him into violent confrontations. Through all the horror, some accidental, some deliberate, Edgar never loses that strangely endearing desire to understand himself and his violent urges.

"For taking a life, one paid with one's own soul," Edgar laments. "To behold the light in another's eyes before extinguishing that light was self-destruction, because those eyes looking back at you became your own."

Along with a fascinating history of the Southeast, Matthiessen has written a classic story of how crushed innocence mutates in the crucible of a macho culture. He's captured the nature of a murderer who fully comprehends the horror and waste of his crimes.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csps.com

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