I grew up with the movie “Bright Leaf” and still remember the final scene in which Gary Cooper, the founder of a tobacco dynasty, is destroyed by intrigue and greed (Cooper rides out of town on a mule.) There was “Citizen Kane” and a wonderful film, “Written on the Wind” in which Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone and Rock Hudson struggle with the temptations of being oil well millionaires. Then, there was Edna Ferber’s novel/movie, “Giant.” The message is clear: excessive power and privilege lead to self- destruction.
Philipp Meyer’s massive novel comes to the same conclusion, but it does it with stunning brilliance. This may be the best novel ever written about the winning and losing of the West. Beginning with a horrific massacre in which a Comanche war party rapes, scalps and murders Eli McCullough’s mother and sister, The Son continues through the slaughter of the Garcias, a large Mexican family some 50 years later.
These two bloody events stand like bookends in this novel. The child, Eli McCullough (born in 1836), survived the Comanche slaughter to become the adopted son of the Comanche war chief, Toshaway. In time, Eli “becomes a Comanche,” adept with the bow and lance and even rides on raiding parties, taking scalps. Eventually, he returns to “the white world” where, despite numerous setbacks (he is regarded as a savage and a barbarian who has an uncontrollable need to steal horses), Eli gradually becomes “acceptable” (shrewd and ruthless). In time, he is one of the wealthiest and most powerful ranchers in Texas.
There is a paradox here. Eli’s survival skills — which include courage, ambition and fortitude — are of a dual nature. His fierce devotion to family and his need to acquire and dominate the natural world eventually transforms him into a force that both destroys and creates. It is Eli who contrives the scheme to murder the Garcia family, a crime that will haunt his descendants for generations. In fact, despite repeated attempts to burn and bury it, the ruins of the Garcia farm remains in the center of the McCullough holdings like a silent accusation
Although The Son covers five generations of McCulloughs, it is the founder, Eli, who remains a controlling force, even after his death. As the family wealth passes from cattle to oil wells, foreign politics and massive “investments,” the family not only survives but flourishes. During times of war, many of the family’s most gifted perish. Alcoholism and drugs take a toll, yet the McCullough Empire continues like a heedless machine that consumes, obliterates and feeds itself on the wreckage.
Eli McCullough’s legacy is guilt. At times, Eli’s descendants come to resemble the members of a “cursed house” in Greek tragedy. Those who reject the McCullough name and seek out a livelihood in another country do not escape since they continue to benefit from McCullough wealth.
Much of The Son is narrated by Peter McCullough, Eli’s grandson who spends much of his life doing penance for the “sins of the fathers.” Despised by his grandfather and trapped in a loveless marriage, Peter lives a hermit’s existence while keeping a detailed history of the family in his journals. Then, he is visited by Maria Garcia, the mentally unstable sole survivor of the Garcia massacre. The two begin a troubled relationship and Maria becomes a resident of the McCullough mansion where she wanders the dark halls at night and plays her mother’s old piano (which had been “acquired” by Eli after the massacre of the Garcia family). The aging Eli tells Peter to get rid of Maria, but Peter refuses.
Finally, there is Jennie McCullough, the reluctant heir of the McCullough fortunes. Stubborn, spunky, defiant and resentful of her brother’s attempts to advise her, Jennie strives to manage the family’s wealth which she fully understands was acquired by theft, corruption and brute force. As Texas roars into the 20th century, Jennie accepts her destiny. In many ways, her world view is the same as Eli’s, and like him she rules by instinct, knowing that she is being watched by all of the people who are dependent on her: work hands, family and lovers. Her presence and her character are memorable — a brilliant portrayal of a lonely, driven woman.
Ironically, Jennie meets Edna Ferber, the author of Giant who comes to the McCullough ranch while she’s doing research. Jennie is not impressed and found the James Dean movie “overstated” and “exaggerated.” However, it is obvious that Ferber found something vital in her visit, something that she managed to capture in the both the book and film.
It is important to comment on the scope of this novel and the background of the American West that Phillip Mayer captures in all of its grandeur. Here is the passing of Native Americans, buffalo herds and the vast vistas of natural beauty, all captured in that brief instant before they vanish forever. The Son is witness to this passing. Men like Eli McCullough destroyed it in a rampage of unsurprising greed and gluttony. Like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and John Williams’ Butcher’s Crossing, here is the American West in all of its tragic glory.
This is a bloody book and it is filled with sexually explicit passages that may make some readers wince. There is a raw energy in The Son that resonates in all the senses. The reader will have the opportunity to smell, taste, hear and see a vanquished world. I suggest that you take your time and savor it.