It’s not clear whether anyone is still trying to write the Great American Novel, but the ambition Philipp Meyer has displayed in the two he has produced so far suggests he might be aiming in that direction. His 2009 debut, AMERICAN RUST, focused on the plight of two desperate young men in a dying Pennsylvania steel mill town. In its story of six generations of a Texas family that spans 175 years of history, THE SON takes on nothing less than the founding myths of the American West. Taken together, they mark Meyer as a young author with the confidence and technical skill to assume an important place in the ranks of his generation’s best writers.
There’s nothing tentative in Meyer’s robust account. THE SON is the frank, often violent story of successive waves of deception, lawlessness and outright theft that marked the settlement of Texas’s Hill Country. The story begins in the years after the defeat of the Mexicans at the Battle of San Jacinto and the establishment of the Republic of Texas, and from that point forward, it’s a relentless life and death power struggle for primacy among the white settlers, Mexicans and Indians (no Native Americans in this saga). As he did in AMERICAN RUST, Meyer deploys multiple points of view, relying on an oral history account from one principal character and the journals of another, along with a conventional third-person narrative, to tell his story.
"The novel has antecedents...but few equals in contemporary literature of this genre. Whether your tastes in entertainment run to Cormac McCarthy or 'Dallas,' it’s a fair bet you will find this a sumptuous feast."
The most vivid character is Eli McCullough, whose life is recounted in a WPA recording in 1936, the year he turns 100. At 13, Eli and his brother are kidnapped by a band of Comanche warriors, who rape and murder the boys’ mother and sister. A sizable portion of the novel’s first half consists of Eli’s (renamed Tiehteti, for “Pathetic Little White Man”) consistently engrossing tale of his gradual absorption into the Comanche tribe during the three years he spends there. While not minimizing the pervasive cruelty of life within the tribe, Meyer paints a sympathetic portrait of a people who understand that for all their bravery and cunning, they are destined to be driven from their land, their way of life soon to pass into history. Drawing on lessons learned from the Comanches, when Eli returns to white society, he gradually establishes himself as a prosperous cattle rancher. But to his son Peter, he is “like some fossil come out of a stream bank or a trench in the ocean, from a point in history when you took what you wanted and did not see any reason to justify.”
Peter, whose journals span the period from 1915 to 1917, is the conscience of the story. He’s witness to the massacre of a neighboring Mexican landowner and 18 members of his family that’s incited by a trumped-up charge of horse stealing. For the rest of his life, which includes the early years of the Texas oil boom in the early 20th century, Peter is defined by that event, tormented by guilt over a night of savagery he tried to stop. Contrasting himself with his powerful father, a man he describes as “the natural,” he regrets that “the problem is those like myself, who hoped we might rise from our instinctive state. Who hoped to go beyond our nature.”
Jeannie McCullough, Peter’s granddaughter, brings the narrative up to the present. Hers is a story of a woman who battles for a place in the male-dominated world over a lifetime that reaches from cattle drives to the modern era of Texas oil wealth. Jeannie’s values are closer to those of her distant forebear, Eli, than they are to Peter’s, as she recognizes that “the blood that ran through history would fill every river and ocean, but despite all the butchery, here you were.”
Without compromising the novel’s pacing, Meyer, who now lives in Austin and reportedly read more than 250 books in preparation for writing THE SON, tackles with a Melvillean zest a range of subjects that include the manufacture of bows and arrows and the butchering of buffalo. He deploys that local knowledge and research in a way that’s organic to the story, not intrusive. He’s especially adept at depicting the forbidding landscape, like the canyon “with fins and towers and hoodoos like observation posts, mesas and minor buttes, springs flowing brightly in the red rock,” so desperately fought over by the contesting parties.
THE SON is no potboiler “Cowboys and Indians” drama. That’s because, though he resists moralizing, Meyer takes pains to ensure that profound moral questions are never far from the surface of a story that's as big as its subject. The novel has antecedents (think of Thomas Berger’s LITTLE BIG MAN and Larry McMurtry’s LONESOME DOVE, to name two), but few equals in contemporary literature of this genre. Whether your tastes in entertainment run to Cormac McCarthy or “Dallas,” it’s a fair bet you will find this a sumptuous feast.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on May 31, 2013