In 2009, as the Great Recession was still dragging on, a young man from Baltimore published his first novel, a devastating story about the human costs of industrial ruin. The Post named Philipp Meyer’s “American Rust” one of the top five novels of the year. The New Yorker included Meyer on its list of the 20 best writers under 40. And he won a Guggenheim fellowship.
What a pleasure it is now to see Meyer confirm all that initial enthusiasm with a second book that’s even more ambitious, even more deeply rooted in our troublesome economic and cultural history. With its vast scope — stretching from pre-Civil War cowboys to post-9/11 immigrants — “The Son” makes a viable claim to be a Great American Novel of the sort John Dos Passos and Frank Norris once produced. Here is the tale of the United States written in blood across the Texas plains, a 200-year cycle of theft and murder that shreds any golden myths of civilized development.
At 561 pages, “The Son” is a long novel that bears its weight with athletic confidence. The story rotates chapter by chapter through three distinct voices, members of the McCullough family born about 50 years apart. That triptych structure is demanding — for author and reader — but as these blazing testimonies begin to fuel one another, they burn even hotter.
The first voice — at once rustic and implacable — is that of Col. Eli McCullough, speaking to a WPA recorder on the occasion of his 100th birthday. “I was the first male child of this new republic,” he claims, referring not to the United States but to the short-lived Republic of Texas. In 1846, his father moved the family past the line of settlement into the Comanche hunting grounds. Game filled the virgin land; the soil nurtured chest-high grass. “The only problem,” Eli notes, “was keeping your scalp attached.”
For those of us old enough to have watched the portrayal of Indians shift from blood-curdling villains to romanticized victims, “The Son” arrives like a flaming arrow in the bleeding liberal heart of political correctness. The Indians who butcher Eli’s family early in the novel behave with a searing degree of gleeful cruelty — matched only by the atrocities committed by soldiers charged with exterminating them. You will never forget the lingering punishment meted out to one unfortunate settler. (Two weeks after reading Anthony Marra’s “Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” this fulfills my year’s quota for torture scenes.)
What follows is a spectacular captivity narrative: the harrowing report of a boy adopted into a Comanche band, absorbed into a doomed nomadic culture that he learns to adore. After enduring (and witnessing) a series of grisly ordeals, Eli — renamed “Tiehteti” — experiences a species of masculine freedom that makes so-called liberty in the United States seem small and cramped. “I slept when I wanted and ate when I wanted and did nothing all day that I didn’t feel like doing,” he says. “We rode and hunted and wrestled and made arrows. We slayed every living thing we laid eyes on — prairie chickens and prairie dogs, plovers and pheasants, blacktail deer and antelope; we launched arrows at panther and elk and bears of every size, dumping our kills in a camp for the women to clean, then walking off with our chests out.”
From buffalo hunts to sexual relations to battles with Rangers and smallpox, Eli’s story gallops along toward a tragic conclusion that is complicated by his abiding affection for these people who slaughtered his family. He celebrates and mourns a vibrant, violent way of life that seems more authentic to him than the pampered, regulated existence that he lives to see in the 20th century.
Indeed, there’s so much panting adventure in Eli’s tale of life among and after the Comanches that it’s hard to imagine at first how the two other narrators could possibly compete. For several chapters, I resented every absence from his raw life. But Eli’s son and great-granddaughter offer something equally compelling, if entirely different, in this capacious book, and it’s another demonstration of Meyer’s skill that he can create and blend these disparate voices so effectively.
We meet Eli’s great-granddaughter, Jeanne Anne McCullough, on March 3, 2012, when she’s 86 years old. For some reason, she’s lying on the floor of the living room in her colossal mansion; the air is heavy with the smell of natural gas. In these confusing final moments, time expands, and Jeanne Anne’s thoughts wander through the events of her remarkable life: from her beginnings as the superfluous daughter of an incompetent rancher to her fame as one of the world’s wealthiest women.
What a range Meyer has: He can disembowel a living soldier with just as much color and precision as when he slights a preppy debutante at a sleepover. He shows us Texas evolving from cattle to oil, from hardscrabble grassland to unimaginable opulence. And how clever to disassociate us from this worn story by telling it from the point of view of an old woman, a woman who had no training in business and no female models, who was never expected to work at all, who had to lean in and endure sexist condescension from the old boys’ network of oilmen even long after she’d proved herself a financial genius. Jeanne Anne’s disordered memories recall not only the development of Texas industry, but the gyrations of our modern energy economy and the maddening frustrations still endured by successful female executives.
Between these two larger-than-life figures crouches Peter McCullough, Eli’s misanthropic son and Jeanne Anne’s grandfather, otherwise known as “the great disappointment.” He comes to us in a series of embittered diary entries written just before World War I when the McCulloughs finally move with obliterating force against a Mexican family living adjacent to their omnivorous ranch.
Repelled by the racism of the era, Peter serves as a tireless critic of his father’s brutality to their Mexican neighbors. But for all his moral superiority, he’s a rather impotent character — so troubled, so shocked, so insufferable. “You don’t care for anyone but yourself and your sadness,” his wife tells him. Ultimately, he ends up alienating everyone in his family — and, ironically, even the Mexicans he claims to defend.
While his father and granddaughter intuit how to harness the forces transforming the world, Peter can only lament and despair — a prairie Hamlet among the Texas Medicis. It’s a curious move on Meyer’s part to give all the righteous judgment, all our own modern liberal guilt, to the novel’s least attractive character. But perhaps Peter finally finds a different kind of satisfaction, a kind that his successful relatives never grasp.
I could no more convey the scope of “The Son” than I could capture the boundless plains of Texas. With this family that stretches from our war with Mexico to our invasion of Iraq, Meyer has given us an extraordinary orchestration of American history, a testament to the fact that all victors erect their empires on bones bleached by the light of self-righteousness. In her final moments, Jeanne thinks of the countless people — Indians and whites — whom her great-grandfather killed to amass his fortune: “It depended on whether you saw things through his eyes or the eyes of his victim as he pulled the trigger,” she thinks. “Dead people did not have voices and this made them irrelevant.”
But in this monumental novel, they’re all relevant to the prosperity we enjoy today, and they all get their voices once again, if only to curse their fate.
Charles is the fiction editor for The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Philipp Meyer
Ecco. 561 pp. $27.99