The Son by Philipp Meyer

book cover

HOW THE WEST SOUTHWEST WAS WON STOLEN

On the ranch they had found points from both the Clovis and the Folsom. For the eight thousand years between Folsom and the Spanish, no one knew what happened; there had been people here the whole time, but no one knew what they were called. Though right before the Spanish came there were the Mogollan and when the Spanish came there were the Suma, Jumano, Manso, La Junta, Concho and Chisos and Toboso, Ocana and Cacaxtle, the Coahuiltecans, Comecrudo…but whether they had wiped out the Mogollon or were descended from them, no one knew. They were all wiped out by the Apache. Who were in turn wiped out, in Texas anyway, by the Comanche. Who were in turn wiped out by the Americans.

A man, a life—it was barely worth mentioning. The Visigoths had destroyed the Romans, and themselves been destroyed by the Muslims. Who were destroyed by the Spanish and Portuguese. You did not need Hitler to see that it was not a pleasant story. And yet here she was. Breathing, having these thoughts. The blood that ran through history would fill every river and ocean, but despite all the butchery, here you were.

The Son is a magnificent family saga, covering two hundred years of Texan, but more significantly American history. Do not be fooled into thinking this is just a book about the Long-Horn state. In the same way that Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk (also set in Texas) took a specific day to stand for an entire period, The Son takes a much larger swath but remains a stand-in for the nation as a whole. A ranching and oil dynasty rises in parallel with the USA rising as a global power.

Items covered include the settlement of Texas by Americans, Indian Wars (sometimes from the perspective of the Indians), The Civil War, WW I, WW II, the Depression. Economic shifts, rise of oil in international importance, significance of corruption in government, impact of increasing difficulty of drilling in the USA and rise of the Middle East as the world’s major source of oil, including some economic intrigue involving the use of insider information. The misuse of the land is raised, as is the complicated relationships between residents of Mexico, Texas, and some who traveled both sides of the border.

Meyer splits the task of looking at different times in American history among three members of the McCullough dynasty. Eli McCullough is the patriarch of this clan, born not on the Fourth of July, but on the Second of March, 1836, otherwise known as Texas Independence Day. He is, literally, the first Texan. (Well, as with the US Declaration of Independence, it was not completely Ok’d until the next day, but who’s counting?) and is as large a character as the state itself. We meet him when he is 100 years old, in 1936, looking back on his life and times, (a la Jack Crabb in Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man) and some bloody times they were. Early settlers into what was still Mexico overwhelming the locals with numbers and guns. Bloodshed aplenty as a new population displaces current residents, whether Mexican citizens or one of the many Indian tribes in the area. Eli is captured by a Comanche raiding party that kills and abuses most of his family. Later he becomes a Texas Ranger, as a substitute for criminal prosecution, making the Rangers remind one of the French Foreign Legion.

The second perspective is that of Jeanne Anne McCullough, Eli’s great-granddaughter. We meet her at age 86, injured, on the floor of her home in 2012, and are treated to her recollections as well. She is the primary female character here, a crusty old bird who is also shown in softer light earlier in her life. But while softer, Jeanne was still tough even as a kid, eager to cowgirl up, take on tasks usually reserved for men, and was unable and unwilling to adapt to the very different expectations of northeastern refinery. Adaptation, and recognizing change, seeing the truth in front of her, or not, figures in her journey. She will use ill-gotten knowledge for personal gain some day.

Finally there is Peter, born in 1870, one of Eli’s sons, and Jeanne’s grandfather. Peter is the superego to Eli’s id. He struggles with what he sees as excessive violence in which his father revels, and tries as best he can to act in a moral way. I found Peter’s character to be the most real of the three. Constantly having to manage moral as well as physical conflict. He is the romantic of the crew. You will love him.

We see all three come of age in very different ways. Eli is taken captive by raiding Comanches as a thirteen-year-old but over an extended period, relying on his courage and quick wits, he learns the rules and the ways of the tribe, coming to see many things from their perspective, and becoming a respected leader. We get to see him again, struggling to adapt to white society while still a teen. We see Jeanne wanting to be who she is but struggling against the bias of the age that preferred its women less hardy, adventurous and determined. We see Peter struggling to reconcile his family and community responsibilities as a young man with the cruelty of his father and the racist townspeople determined to drive out the other, who happen to be people he knows, respects and even loves.

There is enough carnage in The Son to make fans of Cormac McCarthy lock and load. One particularly brutal event is nothing less than anti-Mexican pogrom. And there is enough political inspection to make fans of Steinbeck perk up when Eli says things like:

let the records show that the better classes, the Austins and Houstons, were all content to remain citizens of Mexico so long as they could keep their land. Their descendants have waged wars of propaganda to clear their names and have them declared Founders of Texas. In truth it was only the men like my father, who had nothing, who pushed Texas into war.

Meyer also notes several instances in which the victors write history that is distinctly at variance with how events actually occurred.

There is a lot in here about how change sweeps in and the present is always in the path of a rampaging future, whether one is talking about wilderness being replaced by farming and ranching, working the land being replaced by digging through it, or one population displacing another. Meyer highlights a major theme of the book when the last Comanche chief is found to be carrying a copy of History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Meyer takes on some regional stereotypes as well.

There is a myth about the West, that it was founded and ruled by loners, while the truth is just the opposite; the loner is a mental weakling, and was seen as such, and was treated with suspicion. You did not live long without someone watching your back and there were very few people, white or Indian, who did not see a stranger in the night and invite them to join a campfire.

The Teggs-us Rangers of the mid 18th-century would seem to have had a lot more in common with The Dirty Dozen than they might have had with Seal Team Six. It is also clear that there has been little change in the fact that governments often want services but are not always eager to actually pay for them. The corruption of those in power seems constant across the time-scape here.

Wandering notions. We are always on the lookout for possible connections to the classics. There are some here but they do not seem central. The Eli of the bible lives to 98 and has a son named Phineas. This one lives to 100 and also has a son named Phineas. One might see in the Comanche raids here a link to the Philistine raids of the earlier time. Also Eli was cursed by God that his male descendants would not see old age. This is not entirely the case here, but the death rate is alarmingly high for this Eli’s progeny through the generations. There is a Ulysses in this story, who, like his namesake, goes on a quest. And Eli is referred to in this way as well, in Peter’s diaries:

I began to think how often he was home during my childhood (never), my mother making excuses for him. Did she forgive him that day, at the very end. I do not. She was always reading to us, trying to distract us; she gave us very little time to get bored, or to notice he was gone. Some children’s version of the Odyssey, my father being Odysseus. Him versus the Cyclops, the Lotus Eaters, the Sirens, Everett, being much older, off reading by himself. Later I found his journals, detailed drawings of brown-skinned girls without dresses….My assumption, as my mother told us that my father was like Odysseus, was that I was Telemachus…now it seems more likely I will turn out a Telegomus or some other lost child whose deeds were never recorded. And of course there are other flaws in the story as well.

But ultimately, I do not think there is a core classical reflection at work here, just a bit of condiment for the large meal at hand. In an interview with the LA Times, Meyer cites among influences Steinbeck, Joyce, Woolf and Scottish writer James Kelman. I am sure those with a greater familiarity with works by those authors will find many connections in The Son that my limited knowledge prevented me from seeing.

The Son is Meyer’s second novel, well, second published novel anyway. He wrote a couple before American Rust was published in 2009. He wrote that while in an MFA program in Austin. He has it in mind that this book, which was initially called American Son would form the second volume of a trilogy. It is even more impressive when one considers that Meyer was born in Baltimore, in a neighborhood known more for John Waters films than Indian wars and oil booms.

Family sagas can be fun reads, long, engaging and hopefully educational. They can, of course, be over-long, post too many characters to keep track of and become tedious. Sometimes, though, they exceed all expectations and levitate above the crowd in the genre due to the craft of their creation, the quality of their characters, and the depth of their historical portraits. Some, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, and Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth rise to the level of literature. The Son also rises.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Author’s page

Wiki

2010 LA Times interview with Meyer.

Posted in April 2013

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