Don't Mess with Texas
By Philipp Meyer
Ecco, 576 pages
The Son, Philipp Meyer’s second book, aims to be the Great Texan Novel. The story begins in 1836, the year of the Alamo, and ends in 2012, with the unacknowledged half-Mexican heir of a powerful family riding into the distance while the family mansion succumbs to flame behind him. Three voices—one from an ostensible WPA recording made for Texas’s centennial, one from the author of a handwritten journal twice rescued from destruction, and one relating a series of near-death flashbacks—narrate the tale.
Colonel Eli McCullough, born the very day Texas’s Declaration of Independence from Mexico is signed, starts the book off with the WPA narration. Though he’s the first male child born in the new Republic, his family soon migrates beyond the line of settlement to Indian territory. “The trees had never heard an ax, and the land and all the animals who lived upon it were fat and slick,” Eli remembers. “The country was rich with life the way it is rotten with people today. The only problem was keeping your scalp attached.”
It’s a big problem. When Eli is 13, Comanches butcher his mother and sister and kidnap him and his brother. His brother quotes Goethe to the Indians and is murdered; Eli, made of sterner stuff, is treated first as a slave, then as a woman, then (after he refuses to fetch wood and carry water) as a young boy. As Eli is gradually taught to ride and bowhunt and raid and scalp and make love like an Indian, the book takes off. Meyers did extensive research on the Comanche way of life, sleeping and hunting and even, apparently, drinking fresh buffalo blood as the Indians did (though presumably he drew the line at actually scalping someone). It must have been a bully adventure; the passages that describe Eli’s years with the Comanches are vivid and suffused with boyish joy. “All in all, it was the greatest summer I ever had,” Eli enthuses halfway through the book. “I might be killed any day, by whites or hostile Indians, I might be run down by a grizzly or a pack of buffalo wolves, but I rarely did anything I didn’t feel like doing, and maybe this was the main difference between the whites and the Comanches, which was the whites were willing to trade all their freedom to live longer and eat better, and the Comanches were not willing to trade any of it.”
Alas, his days in paradise are numbered. After his tribe is ravaged by smallpox, Eli agrees to turn himself in to the government so that his Comanche pals can collect the bounty for returned captives. Eventually he ends up on the other side of the law, riding with a scraggly band of Texas Rangers. “In the Rangers there were a number of former captives,” Eli reports. “They felt crowded in cities or even settlements, they longed for their old lives on the plains, and the closest they could get to their old lives, and their old friends, was to chase and occasionally kill them.” When the Civil War breaks out, Eli fights for the Confederacy; eventually he finds himself back in East Texas, married with children, a cattle rancher whose hard-nosed pragmatism serves him well in the pursuit of land, money, and power.
Taken alone, Eli’s chapters would make a delightful book, but Meyer has higher ambitions. He forces Eli to share the stage with two other McCulloughs—his son Peter and his great-granddaughter Jeannie—both of whom are duds. Peter is a melancholy man of inaction who mopes around lamenting the injustices his family has committed, while Jeannie is a nervous wreck. These two “modern” sections—Peter’s life is told through a series of diary entries written between 1915 and 1917, while Jeannie’s chapters span the post-Depression 20th century—are meant to add intellectual gravitas; instead, they spell the book’s doom.
When we first meet Jeannie, she is 86 and lying paralyzed on the floor of her 19-bedroom mansion; her demise is imminent. “The liberals would cheer her death,” she thinks. “They would light marijuana cigarettes and drive to their sushi restaurants and eat fresh food that had traveled eight thousand miles. They would spend all of supper complaining about people like her, and when they got home their houses would be cold and they’d press a button on a wall to get warm. The whole time complaining about big oil.” So far so good; the reader looks forward to the complex tale of how oil replaced cattle and cotton in Texas after World War II. But Meyer glosses over this part of Texan history completely, leaving gigantic holes in the narrative, never explaining or elaborating much beyond Jeannie’s tentative grasp of the family business.
Jeannie is insecure and passive throughout. Her feminist struggles against the Establishment, such as they are, are motivated by personal unhappiness, not by verve or ambition. She runs away from boarding school because Yankee girls are mean; she goes to work because being home with small children is boring. Right up to old age, she is more sap than spitfire.
But it is Peter McCullough, Colonel Eli’s son and Jeannie’s grandfather, who is the novel’s weakest link. His capacity for self-loathing far outstrips Jeannie’s; the very first sentences of his journal prove it. “My birthday. Today, without the help of any whiskey, I have reached the conclusion: I am no one. Looking back on my forty-five years I see nothing worthwhile—what I had mistaken for a soul appears more like a black abyss.” And this is before he watches in horror as his family and friends brutally massacre the McCullough’s Mexican neighbors, shooting the entire Garcia clan (save one woman) in cold blood inside their house, based on dubious accusations of horse thievery and assault.
Peter is bookish, sensitive, and lily-livered. Though he waxes eloquent in defense of his philosophy (which seems to be that the strong need not abuse the weak, that Mexicans should be treated fairly, and that human beings have the capacity for good as well as evil), he never raises a hand to alter the course of events. The implication seems to be that good-hearted men don’t get far in Texas, but Peter is so unlikeable that he gives good-heartedness a bad name.
When Maria, the only Garcia to escape, shows up on the McCullough doorstep, Peter falls madly in love with her. First, his diary is bogged down in sticky sentiment; finally, they run off together, disappearing into war-torn Mexico. What happens next might make a fascinating story, but Meyer ends Peter’s journal here. Perhaps he is not interested in pursuing any narrative that unfolds south of the border. After all, The Son is a Novel About Texas.
Except that it isn’t, really. Meyer merely uses Texas as a symbol for human aggression and greed—and American villainy. No detail is too small to be turned into a soliloquy about the transience of power, the limits of greatness, or the ways human beings justify clan violence. The setting is often as flimsy as a painted cardboard backdrop. And Meyer’s characters are watered-down versions of literary ancestors, rather than interesting creations in their own right. Jeannie evokes Katherine Anne Porter’s elegant, hardbitten heroines as well as Scarlett O’Hara, but she lacks those women’s charisma and spunk. Eli sometimes sounds like Huck Finn, right down to his griping about being civilized, but he can’t even approach Huck’s eloquence or moral depth. The book’s violent scenes echo Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian; the dynasty that dwindles into miscegenation has its obvious roots in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!
The Son, held up against these literary landmarks, suffers dreadfully by comparison. For a book soaked in gore and obsessed with genealogy, it comes across as utterly bloodless.