Oil thicker than blood in Texas
Reviewers of Philipp Meyer’s new novel, The Son (ISBN 978-0-06-212039-7, 561 pages, $27.99) have compared his epic story of the West to books as varied as One Hundred Years of Solitude, Blood Meridian, and Lonesome Dove. His account of Texas from its founding as a republic to the late twentieth century does have elements of all three books — Marquez’s blend of fantasy and realism, the violence and sometimes stark prose of Cormac MacCarthy, the sweep and spread of Larry McMurtry’s writing — but these comparisons may confuse as much as elucidate the reader. Meyer is very much his own man in this fine book.
The Son tells the story of a Texas family through the eyes of three protagonists. Eli McCullough, who narrates his story as a centenarian, was the first baby born in the new Texas Republic. Captured by Comanches as a boy, witness to the murder of his mother, sister, and brother by these same raiders, later a Texas Ranger, a rancher, and an oilman, Eli fights his way to wealth and power as a violent man living in a violent land. He possesses a sharp mind, a powerful will, and a readiness to kill or terrify those who would thwart his ambitions.
Peter McCullough, Eli’s neglected son and an astute diarist, serves in many ways as the conscience of the book. Peter, always at odds with his father and brothers, has a sense of honor and morality that they lack. When he witnesses the blood vengeance taken on a wealthy Mexican neighbor whose outlaw sons have stolen some of the McCullough cattle, Peter becomes forever estranged mentally and spiritually from his family. Despite their contempt for him, he remains with the ranch and strives to live by his own code of honor.
Jeannie McCullough, Eli’s great-granddaughter, has as much spirit as both these men. She fights her way into the family enterprises, finds a husband she loves who helps her keep building that business, and eventually takes her place in a man’s world of ranchers and oilmen. Through Jeannie we follow the family fortunes up to the end of the twentieth century. Like all of the McCulloughs, Jeannie is haunted by the ghosts of the past and the legacy of violence and death that helped build her empire.
What we witness through The Son is the tension between our spiritual disposition and the environment to which we bring those particulars into play. Eli, for example, survives and even triumphs in his ordeal as a Comanche captive while his brother Martin, more bookish, more a dreamer, succumbs to despair. Eli, his kin, and Peter’s wife Sally all consider Peter a weak man, which he is by their lights, yet he stands alone against all of them after they murder their long-time Mexican neighbors. Early in life, Jeannie recognizes that she is not made for motherhood or a domestic life, and battles against those who would stop her from managing the family business.
In addition to its character and drama, The Son is compelling because of the history it contains. On every page of Meyer’s account of the time Eli spends with the Comanches, for example, the average reader will find some new bit of information of life among this fierce people. Meyer also vividly paints the various conflicts among three different peoples, the Mexicans, the Anglo-Americans, and the Comanches, all of whom largely despise each other. We learn of Pancho Villa’s terrible raids on Texas towns and ranches, of reprisals taken against innocent Mexicans, of Comanche raids and retaliatory strikes by Texans and Mexicans.
Meyer’s skill as a writer, a maker of sentences as well as of stories, adds to the attraction of The Son. Here, for example, Eli tells of the death of his brother Martin, who was also a captive of the Comanches. The Comanches — and Eli — think Martin weak and a coward, and a warrior named Urwat, having grown impatient with the young captive’s attitude, knocks him down numerous times with his horse, stabs him with a lance, and finally kills him with an ax. Because of the bravery with which Martin meet his death — he struggles again and again to his feet to face his assailant — the Comanches’ opinion of the young man changes:
Toshaway later explained that my brother, who had acted like such a coward the entire time, was obviously not a coward at all, but a kutseena, a coyote or trickster, a mythical creature who had been sent to test them. It was very bad medicine to kill him – the coyote was so important that Comanches were not allowed to even scratch one. My brother could not be scalped. Urwat was cursed.
In The Son, Meyer, the critically acclaimed author of the novel American Rust, gives us a dark tale of the crawl to power and riches of a Texas family, of what it cost each of them to make that journey, and how they paid down on the debts they owe for their crimes and sins. For those interested in fine fiction about the Old West, as well as any readers who enjoy well-written, literary epics, The Son is a book to add both to your reading list and your bookshelf.