This final installment in the "Mr. Watson" trilogy is, alas, in some ways the most disappointing. This isn't to say it isn't enjoyable, but having made it through both "Killing Mr. Watson" and "Lost Man's River," it's difficult, and perhaps unreasonable, to expect us not to judge this book in the light of its predecessors.
This book is a much easier read than the detective-like "Lost Man's River," which followed Lucius Watson's seemingly interminable journey all over Florida as he hunted for evidence of his father's innocence. In "Bone by Bone," told in the first person from the perspective of E.J. Watson himself, the mystery and doubt so perfectly balanced with drama and violence in "Killing Mr. Watson" is removed. Watson tells his own story, shows us how he became the violent man he is, and reveals to the reader his whole person.
The names in this book are confusing...I can't recall reading a book in which so many names are thrown at you. There is a gloss of family relationships at the beginning of the book, which helps somewhat, but I still found myself losing track of people, especially since we were dealing with members of the same family.
In both "Lost Man's River" and "Bone by Bone," Matthiessen editorializes--through his characters--quite a bit about race issues. Given that these stories are situated in the post-Civil War South, it is not inappropriate that there should be some race issues, but the manner in which the characters editorialize (rather than letting the action of the narrative speak for itself) makes that commentary stick out like a broken wing. The problem of race, and the situation of blacks, becomes less an organic part of the story (as it is in Faulkner) than asides the writer makes to remind us of the racial horrors of the Reconstruction South.
Watson's voice is clear throughout, although there are certain inconsistencies. He speaks for the most part in elevated, literary English (using complex metaphor, at times). We are told that as a child he read the Greek classics. Nevertheless, he cannot spell, and sometimes, for no apparent reason, he lapses into backwoods diction.
In "Killing Mr. Watson," Watson came off as a brooding, violent, secretive man. Here, we see the guts of the man, the joker, the father, the husband. This side is effectively blended with the violence and the brooding we saw earlier. It will be hard to appreciate this, though, if you haven't first read "Killing Mr. Watson." (You don't really need to read "Lost Man's River" to get the full effect of this noverl, although you will be more sensitive to the drama involving Lucius and Rob.)