By Philipp Meyer
This is a sweeping, “multi-generational epic” set mostly in Texas near the Mexican border. The novel begins in the 1800s and concludes in the 2000s. It’s a big story, told in three characters’ voices, and it spans many years. There is a small army of characters and a relentless, event-driven plot. The fact that this book is a mere (relatively speaking) 561 pages is a testament to the concise writing style and terse plotting Meyer employs.
The voices that tell the story belong to three members of the McCullough family, the most memorable and fully realized of whom is Eli, the frontier-raised son of pioneer settlers who becomes the patriarch. Eli’s father came to Texas in 1832. “Like every able-bodied Scotsman, he did his part in the rout at San Jacinto and after the war worked as a blacksmith, gunsmith, and surveyor. He was tall and easy to talk to. He had a straight back and hard hands and people felt safe around him, which proved, for most of them, to be an illusion.”
“My father was not religious and I attribute my heathen ways to him. Still, he was the sort of man who felt the breath of the pale rider close on his neck. He did not believe in time to waste. We first lived at Bastrop, raising corn, sorghum, and hogs, clearing land until the new settlers came in, those who waited until the Indian dangers had passed, then arrived with their lawyers to challenge the deeds and titles of those who civilized the country and vanquished the red man,” Eli recalls in his old age. His father found the land cheaper and titles less contested further from civilization, out near the headwaters of the Perdernales. “It was Comanche hunting grounds.”
It was a dangerous place, but Eli was already half-savage himself and loved to hunt and roam the country. His brother and sister were more like their mother, more bookish and civilized. When Eli’s father goes off to hunt horse thieves, he leaves the family alone. The boys are confident, being “between hay and grass but feeling full grown.”
Of course the Comanches raid the homestead and it’s a bloody lesson for Eli who is taken captive along with his brother. The Comanches are a tribe that uses kidnapping to grow its numbers. Some captives are killed right away for scalps. Some are kept for ransom or for trading to slavers. Still others are found suitable for training to become members of the tribe. Eli is in the last category.
With hardly a pause for the reader to catch a breath, Meyer plunges into the story of Jeanne Anne McCullough, who becomes an oil baron in a world of powerful and ruthless men in 1960s Texas. Jeanne is ruthless in her own right. Eli and Jeannie are alike in many ways, but not so the third narrative voice, Peter McCullough, disgraced grandfather of Jeanne and son to Eli. Peter opposes Eli’s harsh dealings with the local Mexican-American population, yet he is too weak to stand up to his father.
Remarkably, Meyer is able to keep the three narrative voices separate yet intertwined by salting bits of one narrator’s tale with events from the others’. It may sound confusing but never is despite its parallel structure that alternates voices and eras in chapters. Of the three main characters, only Peter seems to be motivated by anything like romantic love. Money and land are the things that move this family — and religion and morals serve the first two things.
Meyer’s graphic style of writing and depiction of raw violence bring to mind Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, but this is a book that is less mystical and less symbolic than McCarthy’s. It’s a bit like Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, especially in setting, but without McMurtry’s self-mocking comic relief. Meyer is not from Texas. In fact, he grew up in the East. But he got his MFA from the University of Texas at Austin where he was a James A. Michener fellow. That is the writer with whom he might best be compared. Michener was famous for constructing big, multi-generational novels that used real history as a template. Meyer is a better writer however, and this book, The Son, is far superior to Michener’s Texas. It’s not up to McCarthy’s standards or McMurtry’s — Meyer flirts with deeper meanings only occasionally — but this is easily the most readable novel to appear this year and is bound to be a best-seller. The McCulloughs are cynical and hard, but Meyer tells their story well. Mostly Meyer leaves the “why” to readers who, like a novice bronco buster, will remember the wild ride better than where it took them.