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Review: 'The Son' by Philipp Meyer a contemporary take on Texas history

The founding of Texas — mythic, sprawling, blood-stained, oil-splattered — seems too big to adequately confine between the covers of a novel.

It's fortunate, then, that Texas has found author Philipp Meyer to wrestle 200 years' worth of state history into an absorbing page-turner that's also intellectually provocative.

The Son tells the story of the McCullough family, tracing its history through the state's biggest milestones: settlers' days, Indian raids, the Civil War, border wars with Mexico, World War I, the oil boom, Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 1970s energy crisis, the savings and loan bust, and today's immigration issues.

The book begins with Eli, born in 1836 near Fredericksburg. Eli is taken captive by Indians as a teen and lives among them as an adopted son. He will die 100 years later as the Colonel, a veteran, a killer of Indians and a hardened Texas patriarch.

His son Peter sees his father's ruthlessness and is repulsed. As violent clashes take place near the family ranch by the Texas border in 1917, Peter looks half-heartedly for a path away from the place. Then there is Jeannie, Peter's grandniece and Eli's great-granddaughter. Without a strong male to lead the way, she takes control during the 1940s and leads the family into the oil boom years. She eventually earns millions, even as she watches family ties loosen and her children leave the state.

These bold outlines give none of the novel's secrets away, because Meyer doesn't tell his stories in a conventional narrative line. Instead, he cuts back and forth among Eli, Peter and Jeannie, going from old age to youth and back again. We know the story's ending in a general sense, but we don't know how it will get there. And each character's story is told in a slightly different voice: Eli narrates his own life, Peter records his thoughts in diary entries, and Jeannie's story is told by an omniscient narrator. Meyer unspools the insights of each generation at the same time, an effect that is extraordinarily compelling.

Interestingly, Meyer is no native son of Texas. He's from Baltimore, and his first novel, the well-regarded American Rust, was a contemporary novel set in a dying Pennsylvania steel town. Meyer's historical details for The Son seem spot on, though, likely gleaned from the author's time at the University of Texas at Austin's Michener Center for Writers, a prestigious MFA program.

In interviews, Meyer has discussed his intensive research for the novel, which included reading many firsthand historical accounts of the founding of Texas. Beyond the library, he hunted buffalo and even drank one of the creatures' blood to be able to more authentically describe Eli's experiences.

The novel's most compelling sections describe Eli's time among the Comanche. (He is called Tiehteti, short for "Pathetic Little White Man.") The Comanche kill Eli's family and then ride with him far away from the Texas settlements. Eli has little choice but to accept a new life, though he also says, "I knew I would probably enjoy being kidnapped, as all they did was ride and shoot."

By the time Eli parts ways with the Comanche, it's the loss of a second family. In between, Meyer dwells in detail on the Comanche way of life: Eli tells us everything about the tribe members from how they tanned buffalo hides ("bear tallow was used most of the time, and this was the main reason bears were killed") to their philosophy of war ("nearly papal in its thoroughness: torture and kill the men, rape and kill the women, take the children for slaves or adoption").

Meyer does not downplay the violence of the Comanche nor does he downplay the violence of whites or any other group. Bloodshed throughout the novel is pervasive and presumed; so is racial animus. Women are dismissed at best and despised at worst. If anything, the book portrays aggressive predation between groups as the natural state of humanity. Compassion and generosity are there, but they're exceptions to be noted.

Because of its unblinking depictions of near-senseless murder and torture, The Son has been compared with Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Because it's an epic tale of the West, it's been compared with Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. And as a family saga (of 561 pages), it made me think of John Steinbeck's East of Eden.

These comparisons are a testament to how good The Son is. But to see this as a throwback novel would be a mistake because The Son has obvious connections to today's literary fiction written by a younger generation of authors. (Meyer is 39.)

With its constant shifting in time and between voices, and its preoccupation with questions of power and predation, The Son calls to mind more recent novels like David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas or Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad.

Meyer seems to be playing on the line between genre fiction and literary fiction in fascinating ways, not content to let us think the characters we meet will always behave one way or another. They act differently at different times, and their actions are viewed differently depending on the observer. So Eli is both cruel and kind, Peter is both fearful and brave, Jeannie is both weak and strong.

Meyer gives us a history of Texas that includes many stories and complicated identities.

Angie Drobnic Holan is the deputy editor of PolitiFact, the Times' national politics fact-checking website. She can be reached at aholan@tampabay.com.

The Son

By Philipp Meyer

Ecco/HarperCollins,

561 pages, $27.99

Review: 'The Son' by Philipp Meyer a contemporary take on Texas history 07/06/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 3, 2013 3:58pm]
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