Texas brings out the big in novelists, especially the ones not from Texas. Edna Ferber hailed from Kalamazoo, Mich., while Philipp Meyer, who has written a tumultuous dynastic chronicle of Texas, is Baltimore bred. Indeed, I suspect Meyer’s “The Son” will strike the deepest chords with those to whom the Lone Star State seems a foreign country. Much like the Texas they may supersize in their minds, Meyer’s tale is vast, volcanic, prodigious in violence, intermittently hard to fathom, not infrequently hard to stomach, and difficult to ignore.
Spanning 200 years of Texas’s history, “The Son” out-giants Ferber’s “Giant” (not to say Meyer’s debut novel, “American Rust”) in both scope and ambition, although the author shares in his predecessor’s sense of a people hardened by standing their ground through the most devastating of hostilities. “The year [President Kennedy] died,” he writes, describing the muted reaction of one of his main characters, “there were still living Texans who had seen their parents scalped by Indians. The land was thirsty. Something primitive still in it.” Meyer concludes this passage on a mixed note of sorrow and steadfastness that permeates the book: “The blood that ran through history would fill every river and ocean, but despite all the butchery, here you were.”
The novel’s larger-than-life embodiment of this uniquely Texan durability is Eli McCullough (a.k.a. The Colonel), the patriarchal fulcrum in a triad of characters who each provide a bridge into three of the state’s defining influences: the Mexicans, the Indians, and oil. Recounting his life for a WPA project on the occasion of his 100th birthday, McCullough claims the mantle of Texas’s first son, born to a Scottish father and Spanish mother in 1836, the very day the Republic of Texas ratified its independence from Mexico.
The traumas borne and inflicted by Eli over those 100 years epitomize those of his native land. At 12, he witnesses his mother, sister, and brother slaughtered by Comanches, who adopt him into the fold after a harrowing indoctrination into tribal life. A measles epidemic eventually decimates the tribe, but not before the young initiate has been desensitized by the reciprocal barbarities of his captors and expansionist (read: thieving) white settlers. Eli’s Comanche apprenticeship will prove useful as an adult, when he ruthlessly annihilates a longstanding Mexican clan, appropriating their land to augment his cattle empire.
The other interweaving narratives in “The Son” track two of Eli’s descendants: his black-sheep son Peter, who, appalled by his father’s unscrupulous land grab, composes a tell-all diary as an apologia; and his entrepreneurial great-grandaughter Jeanne, who transcends the little-wifey constrictions facing Texas women of her day by transforming the family’s ranching business into an oil fortune.
If Meyer is consistently exacting in period voice and minutiae, his protagonists command our attention in varying degrees. Jeannie’s trajectory, despite the mediating distance of the third person, becomes pedantic in its over-insistence upon the sexism she must surmount in her pre-feminist-era rise to power.
Eli ultimately steals this big show, most specifically in his transfixing baptism in the particulars of Comanche mating rituals and battle (there is a lot of scalping, and it’s not pretty). His matter-of-factness in the face of atrocity and an almost willful inability to empathize with the underdog is downright disturbing. To understand Eli’s pathology, Meyer implies, is to understand Texas, if not America, today. Stuff happens, but we soldier on, toughened and emboldened.
Jan Stuart reviews fiction and is the author of “The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece.’’ He can be reached at email@example.com.