Part swashbuckling Western, part Indian captivity narrative, part coming-of-age novel, Philipp Meyer’s harrowing multi-generational saga about the settlement of the American southwest traces the fates of one Texas family over a period of almost 200 years.
It’s hard to say which is more stunning — its ambition, its savagery, or the extraordinary research that went into it.
It’s the second novel for Meyer,whose first, the highly acclaimed “American Rust” (2009), embodied the bitter end of America’s industrial, blue-collar cities. In “The Son,” he chronicles the reverse: the bloody, murderous rise to power that would eventually lead to a culture that worshipped oil “the way a church depended on God.”
Three members of the McCullough clan come together to tell this epic story, each personifying a different but critical piece of Texas history. Flinty, unsentimental but intimate, their accounts — alternating for 72 chapters and with a few exceptions for longer segments — are short and fast-paced, enabling six generations of McCullough history to flow smoothly for 562 pages.
The first is the Colonel — irascible, leathery patriarch Eli, born the same year as the Texas Republic and now, at 100, delivering his oral history to a WPA archivist. Kidnapped as a child by Comanches in 1849 and trained as a warrior, Eli grows to love his adopted tribe but returns to civilization when the Indians, threatened by disease and white encroachment, need his ransom money to survive.
Next is Eli’s son, Peter, whose embittered “true history” takes the form of a diary that documents his remorse over the McCulloughs’ brutal massacre of neighboring Mexican-Americans during the height of the Border Wars in 1915. Acting as the conscience of his fellow Texans, Peter is the novel’s moral compass, but his compassion and need to atone spell defeat for the family line.
Finally, in a story that unfolds in fragments and half-dreams as she lays dying at 86, Eli’s great-granddaughter and oil tycoon, Jeanne Anne, recalls a life spent on the fringes of a good old boy’s club of cattle and oil men. Motherless and once described as useless “she stuff,” Jeannie bucks her expected role as a budding debutante to seize control of the family ranch.
She’s also the child most like Eli, her close companion for the first 10 years of her life: “While other women got prescriptions for Valium, she got one for Benzedrine, and every time she felt herself fading or she wanted to stay in bed or take a long lunch she reminded herself of the Colonel, who had kept working until he was 90 years old.”
But the real soul of the novel belongs to Eli, from the moment he recalls his last day with his family, the Indian raiders outside their house in the middle of the night, and his unflinching awareness of what was sure to come:
“I knew what would happen — the Indians would knock on the door, we would not let them in, they would try to break in until they got bored. Then they would set fire to the house and shoot us as we came out.”
The reality is much worse, as are the terrors awaiting 13-year-old Eli and his bookish, doomed brother after they are taken captive. But as his observations expand to include the daily customs and cheerful tortures practiced by a tribe legendary for its cruelty, Eli’s new family comes off more human than his original one.
Meyer’s Comanches jump from the page, whether killing buffalo, fighting over women or setting a controlled fire under a recent captive. It’s not surprising to find that in recent interviews, the author says much of his research was conducted in the field: He bowhunted, tanned deer hides and drank buffalo blood to prepare for the book. He doesn’t explain where he learned to clean and stretch a scalp.
As a result of this Melvillelike attention to detail, Eli’s tumultuous three years with the Comanche — and later, stints as a Texas Ranger, Civil War soldier and oilman — could easily stand on their own. But Peter and Jeannie’s voices give his tales context and a resonance that makes one thing clear: None of these “sons” feel comfortable in the world they’ve inherited.
Their Texas is one of ancient canyons littered with the ruins of long-lost cultures, crumbling haciendas, rusted Spanish weapons. No one is any less a murderer, a rapist, or a thief when it comes to wiping out an enemy: even the Texas Rangers took scalps. “The strong took from the weak,” Jeannie observes, “only the weak believed otherwise.”
In a novel bookended by references to Edward Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” Meyer reminds us that no one owns America, least of all the first Americans, and that every culture, no matter how powerful, skilled, rich and vibrant, eventually becomes the dust under the next one. “The Son” drives home one hard and fascinating truth about American life: None of us belong here. We just have it on loan until the next civilization comes around.
Ecco, $27.99, 562 pages