So many books are like summer loves — short, sweet, mere flirtations to be enjoyed and forgotten — but once in a great while, you find one that steals your heart for a lifetime. I hadn’t planned on falling hopelessly in love when I began reading “The Son,” but Philipp Meyer is a master at his craft, and his sweeping saga of a Texas dynasty captured me, heart and soul.
Spanning almost 200 years, “The Son” tells the story of three families — the McCulloghs, Garcias, and the Katsoteka band of Cheyennes — whose fates are bound together by land-lust, murder, and love. While this epic tale concerns the history of Texas, it is made personal and specific because we see this history unfold through the eyes of three beautifully drawn characters.
In alternating chapters, Meyer weaves their stories together the way the Cheyennes once braided buffalo sinews to make rope. Each narrator represents a different, but occasionally overlapping, time frame. At first, the switches from character to character are a bit disorienting, but then, as the pattern becomes clear, they create layers of history. Imagine individual, transparent sheets of acetate, each printed with portions of a picture, laid down on top of one another until the entire portrait emerges. Brilliant!
From Eli McCullough, we get the early history, the story of his family’s slaughter by a band of Cheyennes, his abduction and eventual adoption into the tribe, and his eventual rise to become a wealthy and powerful rancher. Oddly enough, Eli is happiest during his years with the tribe, when he can roam at will, doing as he pleases. Eli’s chapters show how his love of the land and freedom transforms him into a self-reliant, ruthless, pragmatic man of action, but a man who will always feel like an outsider. Meyer’s decision to have Eli live to be 100 is a master stroke, since it allows Eli’s story to overlap with that of his son, Peter’s, and even with Jeanne Anne’s, his great-granddaughter. This overlapping helps reveal how Eli’s personality, experiences, and actions influence succeeding generations.
Peter’s story, told via the journal he keeps over a two-year period, forms the novel’s moral center. Unlike his father and his granddaughter, Jeanne Anne, whose focus is on amassing land and wringing wealth from it, Peter concentrates on the evils this way of life engenders and the subsequent guilt that haunts him.
The opening entries of Peter’s journal recount the event that will change his life forever: the massacre of all but one member of the Garcia family, whose ranch abuts the McCullough’s. The Garcias are blamed for the theft of some of the McCullough’s cattle, and a veritable posse of white ranchers and townspeople murder them, despite Peter’s desperate attempts to stop the carnage. Only Garcia’s daughter, Maria, survives and flees, leaving Peter haunted by the dead, who linger accusingly in the shadows.
Eventually, Maria returns, and she and the unhappily married Peter fall in love and make a life together in Mexico. In a satisfyingly ironic twist of fate, one of Peter’s and Maria’s great-grandchildren will be partially responsible for Jeanne Anne’s death and the ultimate destruction of the McCullogh dynasty.
Jeanne Anne tells her story in a series of flashbacks as she floats in and out of consciousness on the day she dies at age 86 in 2012. In many ways, she is a throwback to Eli; she has his energy and vitality, his love of the land, and his skill in making that land yield up its riches. Like Eli, she is also an outsider, since she is woman in a man’s world and never feels her accomplishments in that world have been acknowledged. But she is the last of her kind. Her son, Ben, might have carried on the family legacy, but he dies in a car accident, and her surviving children have no interest in the empire she and Eli have built.
Meyer juggles not only his narrators adroitly, but also the many themes he weaves seamlessly into “The Son.” Foremost of these is the guiding principle Eli learns early in life: the strong take from the weak, whether we’re talking about cattle, horses, buffalo, or the land itself. In this novel, everyone seems to prey on everyone else, yet ironically, the plunderers sow the seeds of their own destruction. They fail to husband the land, draining it of buffalo, water, and oil, but giving it nothing back.
Tied in with the decline of the land is the decay of family strength. The Cheyenne are decimated by starvation and disease; the McCulloghs and Garcias by greed, violence, and apathy. Meyer also shows us a Texas governed by double standards — a world of privilege, where the sins of the rich are overlooked, and a world where men are allowed to behave badly, while women are expected to toe the line.
But above all, “The Son” is about the idea of individual freedom – call it the spirit of the Old West – and the sense we get from all three narrators that one can only depend on oneself.
As if an intriguing narrative style, fully realized characters, and a collection of universal themes were not enough, Meyer also dazzles us with his love of language and his ability to shift from poetic to brutal in a heartbeat. One of the most amusing aspects of his linguistic skills — and no doubt the result of prodigious research — is the way Meyer gives Eli and others of his generation a wonderfully archaic vocabulary. When Eli is faint or weak, he says he feels “dauncy;” when he has sex, he “connubiates.” Some people are “grandacious,” while others, who take off to avoid the law or other problems, “absquatulate.”
Just as impressive is Meyer’s use of description and imagery, both of which allow us to feel as if we are right there, immersed in the sights, sounds, tastes, textures and odors of the world he creates. Like a poignant refrain in a love song, the scent of crushed cottonwood buds permeates the book.
So smitten am I by “The Son” that I’m willing to predict it will become a literary classic. After all, when you fall hopelessly in love, you can’t help but see the object of your affection as the greatest thing since sliced bread.